Sun glints on blade servers

As the end of February draws near, 2003 has given us precious little to shout about so far in terms of significant new products. Thank goodness -- aren't we all still coming to terms with last year's lot?

As the end of February draws near, 2003 has given us precious little to shout about so far in terms of significant new products. Thank goodness -- aren't we all still coming to terms with last year’s lot? Then again, what ground-breaking product releases were there in 2002?

To recap briefly, none that really stand out. (Unless you agree with Bill Gates that the Tablet PC is truly going to change the face of computing, but even he thinks that’s going to take five years. IDC, for one, disagrees.)

Hang on a minute, though. Shouldn’t blade servers get a mention on a list of 2002’s memorable releases? Absolutely, according to Frank Dzubeck, an analyst at Communications Network Architects in Washington DC. Dzubeck, who writes for Network World in the US, reckons the advent of blade servers will be one of two technological "discontinuities" that will occur this year. (The other is the arrival of IEEE 802.11 -- Wi-Fi -- for voice in addition to data.) Blade servers, he believes, stand to become a universal platform for computing and communications.

But they don’t look much; a bit like a PC sound card on a grand scale. Therein is their significance. The server blade represents the miniaturisation of large, discrete components -- switches, routers and application servers -- into a form factor that enables them to be stacked inside a chassis with a shared communications backplane. The benefit, says Dzubeck, is simplicity of management and better return on investment.

Last year was marked by a number of blade server announcements, from IBM, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. But they weren’t first to market. That honour would have to go to one of the early suppliers, such as RLX Technologies or Egenera. IDC is projecting that in 2006 vendors will collectively ship 1.7 million blade servers, and 2003 will see the market take off. More than a quarter of US companies will buy one this year, increasingly for mid-level enterprise computing functions such as email, firewalls and even data warehousing and e-commerce applications, IDC says.

All of which suggests we shouldn’t be too dismissive of Sun boss Scott McNealy’s presiding over a blade server release earlier this month. If blade servers are heading for a big year, Sun’s hitting the spot -- although IBM and HP have already hit the same spot with similar annoucements this month and last. McNealy’s problem is he has so much to say -- and such a brash style of delivery -- that the products almost get forgotten.

In this instance, the blades were submerged in an announcement about a new Sun product naming convention, "network computing" or NC, which fits in with N1. (N1, announced last September, is Sun's network data centre "architecture for the 21st century", intended to turn servers, storage systems, software and networking components into a more manageable entity.)

Apparently, "network computing" is very simple, says McNealy: "This is NC '03 Q1." The naming convention means partners -- McNealy mentions software company Vignette -- can design products that are "NC ’03 Q1-compatible". "Now they can target this new environment and know that it's all been tested and all there," McNealy says. Fine.

The ominous part is McNealy is promising to release NC updates every quarter, something he thinks will be "very powerful". CIOs struggling for breath as one announcement follows another might think otherwise. But that was when CIOs were mechanics, who would "buy their 10-speed bicycles and pay extra to have them unassembled".

McNealy has discovered a new breed of CIO since then, one of whom -- Bill Howard -- he employs. "He [Howard] understands that his job is not managing data centres or the network for us. He's building a world-class, LDAP directory registry implementation that will have every employee, customer, reseller, shareholder and piece of equipment in the Sun community in a directory with a profile for each one, across all our business processes. That job alone will keep every CIO on the planet solely focused on being chief information officer."

And with blade servers, he clearly believes, their lives will be simplified enough to make his words come true.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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