PC servers: New building blocks

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PC servers are not what they used to be. And federal customers couldn't

be happier.

PC servers originally were just what the name implies: PCs that were

loaded with a network operating system, such as Novell Inc.'s NetWare, that

provided file and print services to desktop PCs connected in a local-area

network. They weren't especially reliable, but they served a purpose. And

they were much less expensive than proprietary machines designed as servers,

such as IBM Corp. AS/400s and Digital Equipment Corp. VAXs.

But today, the difference between the mostly Intel Corp. processor-based

PC servers and traditional servers has blurred. PC makers have copied many

features that contribute to the reliability of enterprise-class servers

onto their PC servers, including the extreme reliability needed for mission-critical

applications. This gives agency information technology managers far more

options when building IT infrastructures.

"In the past few years, we've really grown up," said Grant Greig, Intel's

marketing manager. "We have processors now, not only for the front end,

but for the back end." That means that Intel-based servers have the horsepower

for heavy-duty "back-end" jobs such as database serving that until recently

were the domain of more expensive hardware.

"You are seeing people take [enterprise resource management] applications

and put them on these servers," said Gary Newgaard, former vice president

of Compaq Computer Corp.'s federal region. "The servers are becoming more

bulletproof in nature."

"We are really running the Postal Service on these machines," said Craig

Woods, acting manager of application technology engineering for the U.S.

Postal Service. "It is not like, if the system goes down, I can't get my

e-mail or use my word processor. It means I can't do customer transactions."

Meanwhile, e-mail — which often runs on a PC server — has become a mission-critical

application at most agencies.

"Some of the applications that you didn't think of as mission-critical

three years ago are [considered so] today," said Michelle Rudnicki, an IBM

Netfinity sales manager for the public sector.

If an e-mail server has a serious problem, repairing it can be time-consuming.

"Reloading mail on a server could take eight hours," Rudnicki said. "Customers

expect it to be there all of the time."

U.S. sales of Intel-based PC servers accelerated last year despite buying

freezes because of Year 2000, according to International Data Corp. Revenue

grew 26 percent in 1999 compared with 1998. IDC expects the strong sales

of 1999 to continue in 2000, according to Lloyd Cohen, director of worldwide

market analysis in IDC's commercial systems and servers research program.

The hottest parts of the server market are at the very bottom and the

very top. Rack-mounted, two-way servers (those with two processors) that

are inexpensive and compact are all the rage at agencies where space is

a concern. Meanwhile, large 8-way and 16-way servers are growing in popularity

as database servers. "We are seeing most of our activity at those two extremes,"

said Mark Thoreson, inside sales manager for GTSI.

"It is an interesting dichotomy," said Mac McGowan, Dell Computer Corp.'s

brand manager for federal marketing. "You tend to have a mixture of small

departmental servers or large enterprise servers."

Each server packs much more than the ever-increasing processor power

expected from all new computers. They're also adding features that improve

the once-wobbly reliability record of Intel-based servers. "We've found

that regardless of the requirements, people want reliability, availability,

serviceability, scalability and manageability," McGowan said.

The challenge for manufacturers is to avoid making the resulting entry-level

server too expensive. Despite the price sensitivity at the low end of the

market, even entry-level priced servers must have a network adapter card,

so vendors have begun putting Ethernet adapters on the systemboard as basic

equipment.

This frees up a PCI expansion slot for other devices or for a second

network interface card (NIC), which can be used for load balancing (when

one adapter brings data into the server and the other adapter sends it out).

Having two network cards also provides redundancy, so if one adapter fails,

the other can take up the whole load. Performance suffers in this case,

but the server stays online.

But if the added NIC or other add-in components, such as disk controllers,

fail, customers want to be able to replace them without bringing the server

down. So many new servers let customers hot-swap devices from the server's

PCI slots. This requires operating system support, which lets technicians

switch off power to the PCI slot with the bad part so it can be replaced.

Hot-swap PCI slots are usually in middle- to higher-end models rather than

the low end.

"Anything you can do without having downtime is good," said Mike Edwards,

member of the architecture and integration team for the Army Recruiting

Information Support System at Fort Knox, Ky. "The uptime is definitely important."

Another important component of these servers that is getting the high-end

treatment is the power supply. It acts as a transformer, converting the

high- voltage AC wall current to the low-voltage DC current the computer's

components need to work.

A problem with the power supply means the whole server goes off. So,

in keeping with the practice of redundancy to eliminate potential single

points of failure in servers, most vendors offer dual power supplies on

their servers. As with the other parts, the power supply is usually hot-swappable

to eliminate the need to bring the server down to replace the bad power

supply.

Remote manageability of such servers is also important for federal agencies

and for prime contractors holding seat management contracts, Newgaard said.

"Seat management primes are looking for any way to reduce their costs,"

he said.

"Customers are interested in being able to deploy servers throughout

their agency and centrally manage them," Rudnicki said. Vendors are providing

management tools built into even their lowest-priced servers that enable

administrators to manage remotely, so they do not need be in the same building

or even the same city as the server. And that becomes more important as

these low-priced workhorses multiply.

Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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