IBM Corp. and other server vendors are only too happy to sell you as many servers as you'd like. But some of those same vendors would also be pleased to sell you a service that would ultimately reduce the number of servers in your shop, bringing down your hardware and management costs in the process.
For a variety of reasons, such as the growth of electronic commerce, some companies are forced to add more servers than they are equipped to handle. To remedy this thorny problem, new services and software tools offered by IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Sun and others can help customers evaluate their server farms and find ways to reduce the number of servers.
But vendors in the server consolidation business have different approaches, and the user must select accordingly, warns Wayne Kernochan, an analyst with Aberdeen Group, a consultancy in Boston. For instance, Unisys is focusing on consolidating on Windows NT machines, while Sun is trying to replace NT servers with its Solaris boxes, he says. IBM, with its vast services organization, has the broadest approach.
Server "consolidation" may not be the right phrase -- optimization might be closer to the mark, says Rich Fuchs, an executive in IBM's server consolidation program. Companies achieve a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in overall IT costs annually with server reduction -- including hardware depreciation costs, site costs, personnel and more, he says.
The company is quick to point out that larger users typically have a mix of servers, such as mainframes, AS/400s and NT machines, running a variety of applications. These users may not want to consolidate all their server applications on one platform, and they need someone who can assist them no matter what the application or brand of box they carry. IBM won't necessarily try to sell customers on its boxes.
To simplify things, IBM believes customers should concentrate first on lowering total cost of ownership, which can be achieved by simplifying the existing network, for example. Next, customers should look at improving service levels, thus ensuring continuous availability and improving server performance.
An additional burden for IT staffs is the need to get their applications up and running as fast as possible. In such cases, the network's server topology can actually be an extra layer of complexity that can hinder speed to market. Information location is another key area -- the IT staff must learn how to find data in the network and get it to the right people at the right time, IBM says.
These things are not addressed just by adding new hardware -- they also require looking at business processes. IBM uses a variety of tools, such as its Align model, to solve the optimization problems of networks. Align is a methodology IBM has created from its consulting experience. With the aid of user profiles, Align makes recommendations to achieve certain goals. In the future, IBM hopes to offer a Web version of the Align tool that users can access over a PC and that will help them evaluate their networks. From there, the user can go to an IBM business partner for further assistance, Fuchs says.
Once the general goals are established, IT professionals can get more specific about the technology involved. In implementing an optimization scheme, some things may have to stay the same while others change. If a company's primary goal was to save money, IBM would create a database of all of that company's network resources. Say the company had six entry-level RS/6000 servers running e-business applications, as well as a more powerful RS/6000 that was being underutilized. The company could consolidate the e-business applications on the more powerful server and save on the administration and hardware costs associated with the six smaller boxes. There's an infinite variety of ways to implement an optimization, IBM says.
Some other vendors have different approaches. Sun has a 9,000-member professional services branch able to execute a thorough consolidation program, but only on the Solaris platform, unlike IBM or Compaq, which will work with other vendors' gear. Sun first does assessment of the customer's hardware and software assets, generating a total cost of ownership figure along with an estimate of potential consolidation savings. From there, users can benefit from Sun's design and implementation skills, says Tom Bankert, a Sun executive.
Working with a vendor to do a server consolidation makes sense, particularly for small to midsize companies that may not have extensive in-house IT staffs, says Philip Kwan, a network manager at Incyte Pharmaceuticals in Palo Alto. Incyte, which has a large Solaris and Linux network with around 400 servers, executed a consolidation more than a year ago. The staff relied on advice from Sun, but the program was always under in-house control.
Kwan says Incyte started to shed its smaller Solaris boxes in favor larger ones and clustered together its Linux servers to improve scalability. The implementation allowed the network to consolidate 50 to 60 Sun servers on three larger boxes, reducing administration costs and increasing availability.
But users must remember that consolidation isn't just a technology issue, and is not measured only in dollars and cents, says Aberdeen's Kernochan. Sometimes users should look at how well a consolidation affects the applications on the business side. "You don't want to just stop at cost," he says.