PC-Based Servers

The demand for file servers of all sizes and configurations has never been better, in both the federal and commercial markets. In particular, however, federal buyers are snapping up PC-based servers, which gain high marks from shoppers for their performance and ever more affordable prices.

Some things about server shopping are timeless: Flexibility and expandability remain the two principal watchwords as buyers look for the ultimate in input/output capacity.

Manufacturers shipped 1.38 million local-area network servers in 1995, according to Linda Fitzpatrick, senior analyst with International Data Corp. She expects 1.67 million units to be shipped this year.

The federal market is expanding as well, driven by pent-up demand, according to Dave Nelson, inside sales manager with Zenith Data Systems Federal. A lot of microcomputers that were converted into servers now are stretched to the max, he said. The result? Agencies are buying departmental servers to relieve congestion and speed I/O throughput.

Agencies also continue to migrate from mainframe and minicomputer environments to PC-based client/server strategies, requiring servers as they move. "We are seeing strong growth in the departmental 20-to-500-user" class of file and print servers, said Tony Colangelo, director of vendor relations at Government Technology Services Inc. In addition, "we'll continue to see growth in some of the high-performance servers, especially the file-intensive, high-storage-capacity servers."

Pricing the Options

For agencies that opt for a PC-based server, price/performance is key, Colangelo said. "PC-based file servers are approaching the performance of workstation and minicomputer servers at significantly lower price points," he said. "This is even more true with the introduction of Pentium Pro processors."

"Almost every six months there is a 25 percent decline in the [relative] cost" of computing industrywide, said Dwight Forbes, technical director in the federal government region for Digital Equipment Corp.'s AlphaServer products, Greenbelt, Md. In addition to the reduced instruction-set computing-based Alpha line, Digital offers a family of Pentium-based server products.

At the low end of the price range, Compaq Computer Corp.'s ProSignia 300 offers a 120 MHz Pentium, 16M of RAM and 1G of storage for $3,693. A similar configuration from Zenith, called the Z-Server WG—which supports up to 30 users and has a CD-ROM drive and PCI and EISA buses—is offered on the General Services Administration schedule for about $3,700.

Telos is offering the dual Pentium 120 MHz ZDS servers through the Army's Small Multiuser Computer II contract. "We originally offered servers with Pentium 90s on the contract but last month upgraded the processors to 120s at no cost to the Army," said Edwin Williams, Telos' senior vice president for network integrated solutions.

Telos introduced an even more powerful server to SMC II in March, a ZDS server featuring a 166 MHz chip available in single-, dual- and quad-processor configurations. The contract's base price for a single-chip 120 MHz server runs at roughly $3,600, while a single-chip 166 MHz server costs about $7,600, Williams said.

The price for PC file servers, depending on the number of users, can reach tens of thousands of dollars for high-end, multiple-CPU platforms. For non-PC super servers, the prices can be in the hundreds of thousands.

"Once agencies decide how much they can spend, then they can find an appropriate vehicle from which to purchase Intel servers. There are more server contracts than there have been in the past, but a server is not exactly like a PC; it requires more flexibility and configuration of operating systems and application software installation," said Theresa Garza, vice president of federal sales and marketing for Dell Computer Corp. "We've also been seeing GSA making it easier to buy higher-end products [from] the schedule," she said.

Checking the primary government contracts for servers shows that many now offer server options—including the Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement (SEWP), the Personal Workstation Acquisition Contract (PWAC), the Nationwide Office Automation for Veterans Affairs (NOAVA) contract, the Acquisition of Desktop Extended Processing Technology (ADEPT) pact, the Office Automation Technology and Services (OATS) buy, the Common Hardware/Software-II (CHS-II) contract, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command's Computer-Aided Design-2 buy and the Small Multiuser Computer II pact.

In addition, Desktop V is also expected to have servers added to its lineup when it is awarded this spring. Numerous 8(a) contracts also provide vehicles to meet the demand.

Server Specifics

Pricing and buying PCs can seem like simple decisions next to the task of sorting out server specifications, observers said. Servers are marketed differently from desktop computers, said Scott Weinbrandt, Dell's director of product marketing. Expandability, flexibility and reliability loom larger here than at the desktop because each system supports numerous users.

It's hard to say exactly how much RAM and disk drive capacity different departments will need because use varies from case to case. But as a rule of thumb, buyers should allot at least half a megabyte to 1M of RAM per user and at least 200M to 300M of storage per user, according to Ted Augustine, a systems engineer with Acer America Corp., San Jose, Calif.

Also critical is I/O throughput. File servers don't require as much processor horsepower as application servers do, but the bus and bus controller electronics are very important to overall I/O, according to Michael Dam, product manager for the midrange family with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s NetServer Division, Santa Clara, Calif.

To meet that need, HP's midrange LH features two integrated PCI/Fast SCSI-2 controllers. Both the lower-end LC and the LH support the EISA and PCI buses, providing speed while ensuring compatibility. Both products also support multiple operating systems, including Novell Inc.'s NetWare, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, OS/2 and The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.'s SCO Open Server.

A 28-node network in the Treasury Department's inspector general's office currently employs two HP LMs—an earlier midrange platform—and an LC. In such a configuration, remote support becomes a key feature, said Brian Reese, senior computer specialist in the office. HP's remote-monitoring capability allows a server with a power or temperature problem to "call and beep us...or shut itself down gracefully," he said.

The network eventually will replace a Digital minicomputer to which PCs are networked as dumb terminals for MIS applications and electronic mail.

While multipurpose servers remain the norm, some agencies, driven by unusually intense I/O demands, are opting for single-purpose file servers. NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observation (SOHO) mission, for example, will use a "filer" from Network Appliances Corp., said Joseph Gurman, facility scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

The Network Appliances machine is a narrowly focused, operating system-independent filing unit that removes the overhead of filing administration—a substantial savings, according to Gurman. He said he expects the SOHO mission to accumulate up to 400G a year in departmental data. The machine can serve data to anything using the Network File System standard, he said.

In addition, his office uses an AlphaServer to handle legacy software and to double as an application server.

On the very high end of the market, file servers are delivering symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) to sites that have operating systems to support that capability. Almost every manufacturer offers at least one dual- or multiprocessor-capable machine for departments that demand very high throughput or those that experience a very high volume of traffic.

Acer, Dell and Digital

Joining HP and Zenith's offerings are Pentium-based servers from Acer, Dell and Digital. Acer offers AcerAltos 800P uniprocessors and 7000P dual-CPU-capable servers. Supporting up to 60 users, the 800P comes with up to 128M of RAM and up to 4G of hard disk space as well as EISA and PCI buses.

Acer's current best seller, the 7000P, supports 128 users and offers eight drive bays, up to 256M of RAM and up to 32G of hard disk storage. The processors run Windows, Windows NT, SCO, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, Novell, OS/2 and others.

Acer servers are available on Lockheed Martin Corp.'s NOAVA contract and Acer's GSA schedule. Two hundred to 300 units have also been placed in the House of Representatives, according to Chuck Hilton, director of congressional affairs with integrator InterAmerica, McLean, Va.

In 1986, for productivity reasons, the House began to replace a mainframe-based network with numerous LANs running off a common backbone, Hilton said.

Dell also offers a broad range of products with "a high level of success at the departmental level," Garza said, adding that she sees much of Dell's business coming from server upgrades and further computer decentralization. Servers are offered on the PWAC and TDA-II contracts. Dell's best-selling server in the federal market is the SP, which supports up to 500 users.

The PowerEdge SP offers 512M RAM and up to 16G of internal storage—assuming 4G hard drives—as well as four-bay external cabinets. Supporting up to 250 users, the SP offers up to two 90 MHz, 100 MHz or 133 MHz Pentium processors.

The dual-processor-capable Power-Edge XE supports PCI and EISA buses, with up to 512M of RAM and up to 32G of storage (assuming a 4G hard drive). Announced last summer, Dell's entry-level PowerEdge EL machine boasts ISA and PCI buses powered by an up-to-133 MHz Pentium processor. Serving up to 25 users, the EL provides up to 256M of RAM and up to 3G of internal storage.

Digital also offers a line of PC-based Prioris servers available on the OATS and ADEPT contracts. The units scale from the 10- to 20-user LX to the up-to-four-Pentiums ZX 5133MP machine, according to Geoff Stilley, vice president of federal sales with the PC business unit. Prioris machines run Windows NT, SCO Unix, Novell and Banyan Systems Inc.'s VINES, he said.

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Adams is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C. Dustee Anderson contributed to this story.

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