No other industry offers such poor value for money as IT - companies that invest in PCs and servers expect to write off their investment and replace their kit within a few years, sometimes as few as tw. Although the industry argues this is because no other sector improves its products so rapidly, users are demanding a solution - and it may well lie with clustering.
Clustering adds productivity, protects investment, provides back-up systems and is even environmentally more sound because it allows sites to keep old kit and combine it with new nodes as required. No company wants to write off a massive investment within a few years, so Vars and vendors that do not offer clustering will find themselves written off customers' lists instead.
Hardware and software companies are working hard to bring the benefits of clustering to a mass market product set - not only to run bigger software on a commodity hardware platform, but also to preserve user investment. Rather than buy new hardware and discard perfectly useful memory, chips and machines, clustering allows customers to add new machines to the existing system, combine the power of both and simultaneously implement a back-up system, without throwing anything away (provided they stick to the same OS).
This is a clear business advantage in a throwaway world, so the first IT companies to offer up to date, mass market technology that can be used for the foreseeable future should steal a march on everyone else.
Tandem recently joined Digital, Data General and IBM in offering clustered hardware, but software companies are also making an effort to cluster their operating system technologies. Novell's Wolf Mountain, SCO's Tarantella and Microsoft's Wolfpack technologies, all set to be launched within months, are designed to offer protected investments, maximum availability and greater power via multi-node systems.
As one source at SCO put it: "Now Microsoft is involved, the whole clustering idea is validated and ready for the mass market." Jim Gray, senior researcher at Microsoft, admitted the company sees Wolfpack as so important that he is spending "most weekends" trying to drive his team to develop the software within Microsoft's original timescales.
But server hardware is the main field for clustering, particularly as companies want fast Web servers that are reliable and as available as possible. The additional failsafe of clustered systems could push buyers towards modern machines rather than the safe but expensive and elderly mainframes.
Already selling high end clustered hardware for 22 years, Tandem launched its CS150 system in August and jumped at the chance to be an early entrant into the volume market for clustered servers running Microsoft NT. The CS150 is essentially two Pentium Pro servers in one cabinet, sharing some components but designed to stay up when one node fails. Tandem was acquired by Compaq earlier this year, so the move shows the very biggest players in the industry are scrambling to offer clustered systems.
Data General has been selling its 'cluster in a box' dual-processor Aviion server for five months, while Digital and IBM have clustered high end machines for years - although with proprietary OSs. In the volume NT/Intel market, Data General and Digital hope that the moves made by Microsoft and Compaq into clustering will expand awareness, rather than simply lead to more sales for the leaders.
As Apple and Digital have found, it's no good being an innovator if you can't market ideas effectively. Gray said: "We are taking ideas from Digital and Tandem [two of the development partners with Microsoft on Wolfpack] to commodotise them. They are now low volume, high price systems and our contribution will be to add things like one-click installation."
Like Tandem and Digital hardware, Data General's cluster in a box will work with Microsoft's Wolfpack when it is launched. Sources at Data General said its experience in clustering is important, but admitted almost all Aviion server sales are currently non-clustered.
Digital has 65,000 clustered nodes worldwide, according to server product marketing manager Marilyn Sadowski. "They are mainly on Unix and OpenVMS, but we have 4,500 nodes installed on NT today," she said. Digital has licensed clustering technology to Microsoft and is a member of the Wolfpack consortium, although sources said Microsoft has not used any of Digital's code as yet.
"You can buy our clustering software for $995 and our Intel and Alpha servers are certified for NT," Sadowski said, although she did not indicate how sales have gone so far. Digital admitted it must use its alliance with Microsoft over NT-based servers to win market share - particularly as Compaq and Tandem are clustering systems.,p> Tandem's two-node offering and Microsoft's Wolfpack have been criticised for being limited to two servers, but both companies claim they are developing eight-node versions. They also claim the vast demand for clustered Web servers - which are looking for availability above all - means over 60 per cent of all clustered systems will be two-node. Tandem's former chief executive Roel Pieper - now head of sales at parent company Compaq - said few companies will need more than 64 processors for any application. For those that require 64-way, 16 four-way symmetric multiprocessing boxes can be clustered together.
With all the uncertainty and unproven promises about clustering volume hardware, many companies may be tempted to ignore clustering for critical uses like Web servers, and look to alternatives such as multiprocessing or simply upgrading hardware to solve the problem of obsolete kit.
But chip, communications and memory technologies are developing so quickly that this is only a temporary solution - and the demand on processing power from Internet, storage, video and audio is rising all the time. For many companies, clustering will be the only realistic answer - if the vendors can make it work in time.
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