With thin servers, you can pay as you grow

Dell Computer Corp. says thin servers are the fastest-growing product linein its business. Sun Microsystems Inc. just bought a company for $2 billionto get a piece of the action. And market researcher IDC expects a key sliceof the market to grow tenfold in the next four years.

But what does this mean for federal information technology managers? Untilnow, thin servers have been bought mostly by dot-com start-ups and Internetservice providers. Those companies stack the servers in racks and buy moreas needed to keep computer horsepower in line with their growing businesses.But lean-staffed agency IT departments are trying to consolidate their serversso that they have fewer to manage, not more. Nevertheless, many industryanalysts and federal IT managers expect that thin servers and their pay-as-you-growvalue proposition will take hold in the government, especially as agenciesmove more operations and services onto the Internet.

"It's a hot topic that you're just starting to see grow in this segment,"said Mark Thoreson, a sales manager with GTSI Corp., a government resellerin Chantilly, Va. "You're going to see [thin servers] really dominate overthe next couple of years. You can pack a lot of power into a small footprintand not break the bank doing it."

The hot market for thin servers is reflected in its growth rate. IDC expectssales of server appliances to grow from 62,000 units in 2000 to more than700,000 units in 2004.

There are two main types of products in the thin-server market: server appliances,which are designed to perform a specific task, such as serving Web pages,and come with all the necessary software; and general-purpose thin servers,which include only the operating system, so they are suitable for a varietyof applications.

Most of the large computer manufacturers sell both types. Compaq ComputerCorp., for example, offers general-purpose thin servers in its ProLiantDL line and server appliances in its TaskSmart line. Likewise, Sun offersits Netra X line for general-purpose thin-server computing and now has theCobalt RaQ and other appliances through its acquisition last fall of CobaltNetworks Inc. Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. also sell both typesof thin servers.

One of the key selling points of thin servers is that you buy only whatyou need.

"It would have been great if these devices were available five or six yearsago when we were building our network because we could have built the firstpiece, then added processors as we needed them," said Gary Wyckoff, directorof technology at the Navy's Information Network Program Office. "It probablywould have been a tremendous cost savings instead of buying some big serversand then waiting to grow into that capacity."

But what about the apparent contradiction of adding more servers when you'realso trying to reduce their numbers through consolidation? As it turns out,not only can you do both, there are excellent reasons to do so as part ofa distributed architecture.

"You usually see server consolidation take place in the back office withbigger, heavier applications," said John Humphreys, a research analyst withIDC. "With the bricks-to-clicks strategy [of traditional organizations movingoperations online], that traditional infrastructure is often completelyisolated from the growing online infrastructure."

For the back-office applications, such as databases and transaction systems,it makes sense to "scale up," or expand vertically, on one or more big servers.That makes it easier to manage the highly complex system. Meanwhile, useraccess to the applications, which increasingly is via the Internet or anintranet, can be provided through a front end that consists of multiplethin servers. Providing basic connectivity services is a relatively simpletask, which makes it ideal for an appliance. As user volume grows, you then"scale out," or expand horizontally, adding more thin servers as needed.There are other benefits to this approach. "By removing the basic servicesfrom the systems that run the mission-critical applications, you will increasetheir performance and reliability," said Peder Ulander, group product marketingmanager at Sun.

You also increase reliability on the front end because the multiple thinservers provide redundant paths to the data on the back end. In addition,thin servers are inexpensive enough so that you can have spares on handin case others go down.

In many cases, federal agencies will even be able to design applicationsso the front-end thin servers can handle most of the user information requests,meaning that the back-end servers are not even involved, according to JonPollock, enterprise brand manager for the federal government at Dell.

"About 80 percent of the government's online information is static," hesaid. "That's a great model for appliances. Requests for dynamic informationcan then be passed off and handled by the [back-end] systems."

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