Only a few broad-range suppliers and focused vendors will survive in the server market, claims David Chalmers, product and technology director at server vendor Stratus Computer Systems. Server sales are healthy now, but the market is changing rapidly as developers battle for control of the 64bit processor sector. Around them, a number of alliances are being formed by operating system (OS) vendors, and the low-end Intel-based PC architecture server is under notice from 'appliance' products.
"The supply side of the IT industry is somewhere in the middle of its biggest and fastest-moving period of change ever," said Chalmers. "The sort of consolidation and shake-out experienced over several decades by the car industry, for example, has happened in just a few years in IT."
It is also clear that the winners will not necessarily be those with the 'best' technologies, he said. "Those who have the financial muscle or product clarity of vision will be the long-term players." This applies mainly to the struggle for control of the processor platform. Those that can generate volume sales, not those with the fastest and most innovative products, will win.
"Vast sums are needed to build and re-build processor fabrication plants," he added. "This clearly places Intel at the top of the heap by a very long way, with only IBM and its copper-based production technologies as an alternative. All others will eventually end up withering away. Most will get there after a spell when their processor designs are manufactured by one of the winners, such as Alpha at Intel and PA-Risc at IBM."
Even so, manufacturers are circumspect about their choices. Perhaps they don't want Intel to gain too much power.
Compaq is sitting firmly on the fence in the processor game. Iain Stephen, business manager at the vendor's server division, said: "Alpha already dominates the 64bit processor market, with the largest number of 64bit applications and the highest performance."
"However, Intel-based servers are the platform for Windows NT/2000, Netware and SCO - the volume leaders in the industry. My view is that the 64bit Risc processors with a stated future - Alpha, Sparc and PowerPC - will be used in more niche applications and industry areas. When Itanium hits the right price and performance levels, it will become the standard server processor for general applications," he added.
Intel's 64bit Itanium (IA-64) development will win the battle for the broad server product market, but much of its uptake will rely a great deal on the old Wintel alliance. Recent events in the US law courts, and the questions still being asked by the market about the reliability and scalability of Windows for really substantial applications, mean that Itanium will not be the only processor on the market and Windows 2000 won't be the only OS.
Distributors claim Compaq's Tru64 Unix running on Alpha is experiencing significant growth at the moment, and IBM is helping Compaq with Alpha development. Slowly, but well away from the war zone, the lines are being drawn in the sand.
Taking a Risc
Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems argues that it has the only successful 64bit UltraSparc processor, and that its Solaris 8 operating environment is the only working combination available today. David Allinson, workgroup and network servers product marketing manager at Sun, said: "By using Risc technology with a strong focus on multi-threading and synchronous multi-processing, we have developed a product offering that has established Sun as the leading Unix vendor and the reliable system of choice for web-based services."
David French, enterprise business specialist at distributor Ideal Hardware, expects Sun to focus its efforts on Intel's technology, while IBM seems to be in a similar position with PowerPC "despite having already demonstrated that it has the right technologies in place to build extremely powerful processors", he said.
"The way forward would be for competition in processors to thin out considerably, with the existing handful consolidating down to three technologies: Intel, Alpha and perhaps one other. Compaq has good support for Alpha with its manufacturing and development partnerships with IBM and Samsung. That could indicate IBM may have Alpha in mind as a platform for its own OSs," he added.
Compaq's Stephen said: "There must be a future for Solaris. It is the leading Unix OS, with lots of applications and an installed base. Is there a future for Sparc? That depends on the success of the Solaris port to Itanium."
IBM seems unsure what the OS or processor of the future is, but it is a player big enough to back PowerPC and Itanium alongside AIX, Monterey and Linux for some time. "But it will have to eventually choose one, or its customers will make the decision for it," said Stephen.
The same law will apply to Compaq. None of the major vendors seem certain which way the platform market will go. It is likely that we will continue to see specific server solutions for high-end applications with a variety of OS and processor combinations. At the low end, purpose-built servers that require no OS, but fit into a multiple platform architecture, will become more popular, forcing all but Windows 2000 and possibly Linux, up market.
Grabbing a slice of the market
Windows NT has taken a large slice of the market, but "dominate is a strong word", said Stephen. Unix and Novell both have life in them yet, but for different reasons.
As to the OS platform for the future, few are ready to predict how the dice will fall. "For the past five years, I have believed that application vendors hold the key to all of this," said Stephen. "If SAP chooses to support only one platform, who can change that decision? Likewise, if the next generation of applications supported only Linux, what would everyone do?"
He believes it is too early to talk about what might happen if Windows is opened up to the market as a result of Microsoft's breakup. However, Eric Grayson, vice president of NCD, does not believe that Windows will be opened up, while Allinson believes any break-up will make little difference. "Speed to market is crucial as customers will just pick what is available and is proven to work. There will be no time to try, develop and migrate to new, unproven operating systems," said Allinson.
But not all developments in the server market concern the processor and platform. Clustering is seen as one of the key areas in the years ahead.
Although it has been talked about for some time, this technology has not yet delivered on its promises for the wider market. However, that will change, Allinson predicted. "Clustering is important in two major respects: to ensure application availability and maintain data integrity, and for system management and network traffic load balancing to provide system redundancy."
But Stephen believes clustering will not happen quickly because applications development will delay adoption. "In the Windows world, clusters are about availability," he said.
The other major trend in the server market is the growth of the appliance server. High-end servers will be designed to meet specific applications or functional needs. This is where the different architectures, processors and OSs will find their niches. At the lower end, we will see a struggle between Itanium/Windows 2000-based equipment and server appliances.
Some vendors are already bringing out these products and there are rivals as well. We are entering a transition period in server technology that will see the market move from its current, relatively flat and highly competitive state, to one that has more clearly defined areas of server-based computing.
Jeff Hewlett, Intel product manager for the infrastructure and systems division at Bull, said there is a huge drive to consolidate servers, particularly those for email, file and print applications and multiple databases. This is leading to higher demand for rack-mounted servers, he said.
Internet-based email is the key driver here. Further development of specialist server appliances can be expected after this period, said Stephen. "Maybe in 18 to 24 months we will see the next generation of applications use local appliances for dedicated tasks. But IT people are reluctant to believe an appliance can do as good a job at a lower price than something they build and manage themselves."
Mark Kinsell, a representative of distributor Hammer, said servers are becoming bespoke items at the top end of the market. "It is virtually unheard of for two organisations to have identical IT needs. Traditional server functions will be provided by a series of specialised Lan-attached devices in conjunction with application servers."
For appliance server developers, these are positive signs, but they may have to wait before sales really take off.
- Intel's Itanium processor looks set to dominate the volume server market, and Windows 2000 will ride on its success.
- Other 64bit processors, such as Alpha and Sun Sparc, will not die out but will, along with their respective operating environments, increasingly occupy niche areas.
- Appliance servers will start to meet basic small business and departmental needs and push all other server developments up market.
- Clustering will become a much more important technology as vendors look to scale their systems vertically and horizontally.
- Alliances between processor and OS vendors will reduce the number of broad market players.
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