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Low-end servers gain power, features

Dec 09, 20025 mins

Memory-mirroring, fault-tolerance features aim to satisfy users who want more for less.

Everyone’s view of what makes up an entry-level server is different – but everyone agrees that the category is changing rapidly from an unmanaged, single-CPU server to a more powerful, multiple-processing, highly available and fault-tolerant machine.

For a benchmark, IDC defines entry-level servers as those that sell for less than $100,000 – a broad group that includes RISC, 32-bit Intel and PowerPC-based servers; blade servers; and 64-bit Intel Itaniums. Jeff Hewitt, an analyst with Gartner, says that “in the second quarter of 2002, 99% of all the servers shipped were sub-$100,000.” Of that group, servers that cost less than $5,000 accounted for 78% of all servers.

Vendors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun are incorporating technologies that increase availability and fault tolerance into their entry-level servers. The gamut of powerful features, such as memory mirroring formerly used in midrange and high-end Unix servers, is migrating down as IT managers demand more capability for less money.

“We’ve been trading up in terms of capability and down in the scale,” says Rocco Esposito, CTO for window-covering manufacturer Hunter Douglas in Upper Saddle River, N.J. Hunter Douglas has about 250 servers – half are Intel-based and half are Sun SPARC-based servers. “Whereas two years ago we would have bought a Sun Fire V420 with four CPUs, now we just have to buy a handful of Sun Netras, which are far more powerful, but also much cheaper,” Esposito says. “Now we throw a lot more small boxes at a problem.”

And vendors have noticed the rapid deployment of entry-level servers, too. “Entry-level servers are like rabbits – every time I go to the data center, they’ve multiplied,” says Paul Miller, a director in the Industry Standard Server division at HP.

HP has one of the widest varieties of entry-level servers of all the major systems vendors – from RISC-based Unix boxes to Intel 32-bit servers and blades, and 64-bit Itanium servers – that sell in this market. Sun’s entry-level servers have one to eight processors, a spokesman says. The company makes RISC- and Intel-based servers, and blades designed specifically for the telecom market.

IBM has a family of RISC-based servers, Intel servers and blades; Dell focuses on Intel-based products, including servers and blades. Of the group, only HP so far has put its bets on Intel’s 64-bit Itanium processor. Dell announced recently that it would support Intel’s Itanium processor, and IBM plans to introduce Itanium-based servers, but neither company has announced specific product plans.

“Intel has been considered to be the benchmark for entry-level servers, but you can’t count out the RISC players from IBM, HP and Sun really driving further into the entry level,” says Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst with The Yankee Group. “The low-end pSeries from IBM, the rp series from HP and Sun’s V440 and V480 are excellent examples of how the Unix vendors are really trying to push price/performance down so they can make comparison’s to Intel.”

Others note that features such as partitioning capability, more powerful and faster processors, hot-swappable memory, disk drives and PCI adapters are becoming standard features on servers as users require more capability for less money.

“The compute power you can get with entry-level servers today matches what you could have done in the midrange four or five years ago,” says Vernon Turner, research director for IDC.

And the trend continues. HP announced last week two low-end Intel-based servers – the DL320 and DL360, which support high-end memory features.

IBM also has incorporated high-end features such as hot-pluggable power supplies and dynamic de-allocation of processors into its entry-level pSeries servers that run IBM’s AIX operating system. Features such as Chipkill memory and bit-steering that help lower the number of memory failures are becoming standard options.

Entry-level servers also are being used for different things than they used to be.

Rather than being used primarily for file and print sharing, entry-level servers are being put to more uses, Turner says.

“In the past, low-end servers would be simply used for departmental file and print devices so that you could use a desktop turned on its side to drive your printing requirements,” he says. “You’re starting to see applications such as e-mail or databases, Web services and security applications popping up because these servers are reliable and durable.”

At The Pennsylvania State University in State College, associate research engineer Jan Groenveld is using less-expensive low-end servers in just this way.

“We’re seeing the use of $2,000 to $3,000 dual[-processor] X86 boxes dedicated to specific problems,” Groenveld says. “I’m currently evaluating a [Sun] LX50 with Solaris X86 to be used as a firewall at a remote customer site. Solaris X86 and the applications I’ll run on top of it perform better on multiprocessor CPUs.”

HP’s Miller says application vendors also are building their applications differently for Internet-based infrastructures.

“The software vendors are building their applications to be multitiered,” Miller says.