Intel processor-based machines are appearing in the heart of agency data centers and running applications critical to the organization's business. And as PC servers take on more serious tasks, computer manufacturers are packing them with no-nonsense features like multiple Pentium Pro processors and fail-safe redundancy at nearly every major component.

"I think the products, operating systems and applications have evolved to the point where they are in mission-critical space," said John Young, director of product marketing and business operations for Compaq's Server Products Division. "Most customers are talking about migrating their mission-critical stuff to NT environments. A lot of them still have a major investment in UNIX ... so it's not going to happen overnight, but I think there is widespread recognition that it's the right trend."

Government Growth

That trend is apparent in the public sector. Manufacturers shipped 43,000 PC servers to state and local agencies in 1996, according to IDC Government. The market-research firm expects PC server shipments to reach 121,000 by 2001, yielding a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of slightly more than 23 percent.

The numbers paint a similar picture on the federal side, where a recent analysis projects that, over the next five years, shipments of PC servers will outpace deliveries of traditional high-end servers with RISC processors, according to Payton Smith, an IDC Government research analyst.

In 1996, manufacturers shipped nearly 36,000 PC servers to federal agencies, said Smith, compared with a little more than 10,000 RISC-based servers. Over the next five years, he expects PC server shipments to grow by a CAGR of nearly 5 percent, while RISC-server shipments will climb by only 1.2 percent.

"As the technology for PC servers has improved, the costs have come down. A lot of organizations out there are finding that their requirements can be satisfied by a PC server," said Smith. "We're at a point where you are getting more processing power per dollar out of PC servers than you are out of RISC servers. That's a large reason why the Intel-based servers seem to be growing so much faster."

At this point, however, the Intel-based servers seem most attractive to smaller agencies, he said. "Many times, the PC servers are going to regional offices. The large, enterprise organizations are sticking to RISC-based servers and UNIX operating systems."

Curt Cornell, director of Partnership America, Ingram Micro's government sales program, said the Santa Ana, Calif.-based computer distributor also sees increasing activity in the PC server market.

"We see more demand on the PC side than we do on the UNIX side," said Cornell. "State and local governments -- as well as the federal government -- have decided what their architectures are going to be, and they're buying accordingly. From a sheer sales standpoint, it appears the PC architecture is gaining favor."

Growing Up

Intel-based servers emerged nearly 10 years ago, handling print, file and other mundane applications. Then they graduated to small workgroups, providing e-mail, groupware, intranets, local accounting applications and Internet access. As these workgroup servers sprouted up across organizations, many of their applications -- like e-mail, intranets and the Internet -- began to play a key role in everyday business activities.

"What we see now is a trend in large organizations to take all these servers back into the data center and consolidate them for management," said Stefano Paoletti, Hewlett- Packard's worldwide product manager. "Now they're saying, 'I want one large [Windows] NT box that has the scalability and high availability to support these applications.'"

A major breakthrough in PC server performance came several years ago with the introduction of four-way multiprocessing. Teaming multiple Intel processors inside a single computer armed PC servers to take on demanding database applications and other "number-crunching" tasks, according to Compaq's Young.

"It's more suited to database environments, which are primarily