Thin servers have been popping up at an amazing pace. These closeded set of server functions. boxes are dedicated to specific tasks - say a firewall, HTTP, Email and an Ecommerce server - but are alternatives to the more traditional approach of running lots of software services on a single, larger Unix or NT box.
Gartner Group was among the research firms that recently pronounced the market ready to go mainstream. The group defines a thin server as a specialised, network-based hardware device designed to perform a single or specialised set of server functions. It is characterised by running a minimal operating architecture.
Independent client access
Client access is independent of any operating system or proprietary protocol.
It delivers extreme ease of installation and minimal maintenance and can be managed remotely from a Web browser.
"Like toasters, microwaves and coffeemakers, server appliances perform a single function well, cost relatively little and work with virtually no need for costly installation, maintenance or repair," said Brad Romney, business unit manager of Intel's small business networking operation.
Network appliances are designed to support popular industry standards such as TCP/IP and HTTP, so they can easily interoperate with all components on the Net and all types of computers.
Analyst Dataquest researchers project the network appliance market segment to grow to more than $16 billion (£9.88 billion) by 2002. The worldwide market had strong growth in 1998, with revenue reaching $1.5 billion (£0.93 billion), a 52% increase over 1997.
However, James Staten, senior industry analyst of emerging server technologies at Gartner, said a major challenge for thin server vendors is to continue to educate users about this new class of products.
"Education of the end-user community remains necessary and this lack of education contributed to a lower-than-expected growth rate of the market," Staten said. "However, it cannot be overstated that for a market this young, the growth that occurred in 1998 is extremely positive."
Staten also said the servers will be marketed as appliances because of their emphasis on ease of set-up and maintenance. The most mature market, device-control thin servers, which is composed mainly of print servers, grew 13.6%, while the workgroup Internet appliance category saw revenue rise more than 200%.
Large businesses bought the most thin servers, or 35.6% of the total.
Medium businesses took 28.9%, with small businesses accounting for 16.5% of the market.
Scepticism over initial entries
The initial entries into this new market, which should not be confused with the different class of single-function servers targeted at industrial-strength applications such as Web hosting and telecommunications applications, were greeted with scepticism.
They were slow, complex, and not nearly as easy to manage as the market had been led to believe.
Other similar efforts include Oracle's Raw Iron bid to create a new market for database server appliances that can lower overall operating costs.
Thin servers can be broken down into five market segments: the small business (all in one area); applications; network attached storage; device control; and the home market.
Staten said market opportunities in the small business area will come from vendors such as Compaq, Microsoft and Intel, "who jumped in with both feet in 1999".
Caching is expected to be one of the biggest opportunities in the application area. Staten predicted that growth would nearly double within a year in the NAS market.
The analysts saw print servers as the growth opportunity in the device-control area, where $574 million (£354 million) in revenue was reported for 1998.
In the home market, Staten said consumers will buy primarily set-top boxes.
Intel and Microsoft announced in April that they will join forces to make thin servers "highly reliable" and easier to set up than regular servers - aiming at small businesses needing file, print and secure Internet content sharing.
Benefits for small offices
Many small offices with multiple PCs would benefit from Email and file sharing, but fewer than 30% have done so because of the cost and complexity of installing a traditional PC server, a report from analyst firm IDC said.
"This market is poised for strong growth as a result of recent price reductions to Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server," said Eileen O'Brien, director of IDC's thin-clients research programme. "The industry now has an affordable enterprise multi-user operating system that supports enterprise thin clients. This should spark adoption of server-based computing and thin clients throughout enterprises."
Other factors that will contribute to the market's growth include Y2K issues and the emergence of application service providers.
Intel and Microsoft said the products based on these technologies are expected to be available from original equipment manufacturers in the second-half 1999.
Additional players in the market include Mirapoint with its Internet Email Appliance and Northern Telecom with its Baystack Instant Internet models.
Included in this category is Whistle Communications' toaster-size device that is based on the UNIX operating system which provides Email, Web browsing and Web publishing features. Compaq also entered the market with its Windows-based "Neoserve".
Thin servers can also act like Internet post offices, using simple mail transfer protocol and post office protocol to let end-users access, send and store Email.
Network appliances will usher in a new era of technology use, enabling performance enhancements, cost reductions and new levels of productivity throughout the business sector.
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