Service providers driving major hardware changes

Hardware changes that are being accelerated largely by the demands of the service provider (xSP) market are giving enterprise data centers brand-new, cost-effective ways of deploying, scaling and managing their server resources.

The growing availability within the past 18 months of slimmer, highly rackable servers, capacity upgrade-on-demand technologies, workload management software and usage-monitoring tools is the result of vendors responding to xSP needs, according to users and analysts.

"Hardware vendors tend to go where the revenue is," said Josh Turiel, network services manager at Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co. in Salem, Mass.

And for some time now, the application service provider (ASP) market has represented the bulk of that revenue opportunity, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

XSPs have tended to buy servers by the hundreds and have therefore needed to be highly organized about housing their systems, servicing them, providing power to them and managing them, Eunice said.

As a result, they created a "strong demand for partitions, capacity on demand, workload management, smart switches, online maintenance and a dozen other hot-button features," Eunice said.

More Than the Box

Hardware companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM and Compaq Computer Corp. have responded by going after the xSP market with a variety of targeted technology and service programs, said Eric F. Goodness, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"Hardware vendors are realizing that it is just not about pushing boxes any longer," Goodness said.

Their experience supporting the needs of the ASP market has shown that hardware vendors don't just have a single "technology function, but one that involves the facilitation of the business process as well," he added.

"[HP] has used service providers as a design center for our technology," said Mark Hudson, a worldwide manager in the enterprise server division at HP.

Today, many of those technologies from HP and other vendors are beginning to find use in enterprises as well, as data centers look for ways to cut costs and improve service, Hudson said.

The growing popularity of slim, rack-mountable servers is one example. Barely three years ago, few vendors offered them as a part of their standard enterprise offerings. Today, they are common across every server lineup, as vendors have responded to xSP needs for space-saving systems that can be easily "racked and stacked" on top of each other.

Holyoke Mutual plans to use such thin servers and an array of shared storage servers to replace its current server architecture, Turiel said.

"The approach should let us utilize power and space more efficiently . . . and I'd expect to see better availability than I would with monolithic stand-alone servers," he said.

The demand from xSPs for servers that can be easily expanded to handle sudden increases in workloads has also led to a proliferation of capacity-on-demand options from all of the major hardware vendors.

Using those options, enterprises can typically buy a system with more processors than they initially need and then turn on processors instantly as their capacity needs increase. This typically allows for lower upfront costs and better use of resources, according to analysts.

HP's Superdome Unix server and Sun's high-end UltraEnterprise servers are both examples of large systems that support such capabilities.

A host of partitioning technologies, remote management capabilities and tools for usage metering and usage analysis are also increasingly bundled into such servers.

These types of technologies will increasingly let data centers provision out capacity and charge for it on a usage basis, much like ASPs do today, said David Krauthamer, MIS manager at Advanced Fibre Communications Inc., a telecommunications equipment manufacturer in Petaluma, Calif.

Technologies like these "take your focus away from [managing] the infrastructure piece and let you focus on the value-add piece, which is the application," he said.

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