Intel-Based Servers Flex Their Muscles

After years of handling file and print applications, PC servers are entering the big leagues.

by / November 30, 1997
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 mission-critical kinds of things," he said. "Database applications require more processing to extract information. That's different than file and print, [which is] just moving data around."

Intel's Pentium Pro chip, introduced last year, ratcheted up performance another notch by boosting processor frequencies and memory cache. Along the way, manufacturers also have made commensurate gains in input/output capability, main memory and network interface cards (NIC). Together, these improvements produce PC servers with enterprise-class capabilities.

For example, Compaq's new ProLiant 7000 and ProLiant 6500 support up to four 200MHz Pentium Pro processors with 1MB of Level 2 cache memory, according to the company. They also offer integrated Wide-Ultra SCSI-3 for fast data transfer and 10/100MB per second auto-sensing NICs.

These machines are built to take on demanding applications such as SAP back-office programs and Oracle databases, said Young. "A few years ago, you wouldn't have heard about those running on [Intel]-based servers. Now there are probably around 1,500 installations running SAP on Compaq servers."

HP, which offers comparable four-way Pentium Pro processing in its NetServer LX Pro line, plans to up the ante even further by introducing an eight-way Pentium Pro server by the end of the year, according to Paoletti. He expects the new server to provide a 50 percent increase in power over existing four-way machines.

"This will give us the scalability and performance that customers have been asking for," said Paoletti. "People are running out of power on four-way systems. They're running 90 percent or higher CPU utilizations on enterprise applications such as SAP, BAAN and Oracle."

On the other hand, Compaq will wait until Intel releases the next generation Pentium processor -- a 300MHz chip known as Deschutes, scheduled for release in 1998 -- before offering an eight-way multiprocessor machine, said Young.

Both Compaq and HP are assuring customers that their latest servers will be easily upgradeable to the new Intel processor once it hits the market. Paoletti said HP's eight-way server will be designed so that users may simply swap modules that contain processors and related electronics. And, Young said Compaq guarantees that its ProLiant 7000 will also be upgradeable to eight-way technology with the Deschutes chip.

Tall Order

What do today's government IT buyers want from a PC server? Plenty, according to industry representatives.

"They're looking for state-of-the-art technology, fast speed, a lot of memory, the ability to yank a hard-drive on the fly and continue processing, and all the goodies," said Ingram Micro's Cornell.

"This is a guess on my part, but I think a lot of this is being driven by the networking that may not have been done over the years," said Cornell. "Intranets are growing by leaps and bounds in state government."

Kelly Ross, director of government distribution for MicroAge, another major computer distributor, said the popularity of Windows NT also is driving government interest in PC servers.

"Windows NT is huge," said Ross. "UNIX tends to be more expensive, and it's complex. Let's face it, it's hard to find folks who know that stuff."

Furthermore, government buyers are demanding better manageability, according to California State Computer Store representatives who asked not to be identified. The store provides computer hardware and software to California state and local agencies as well as school districts.

Computer store representatives noted growing interest in advanced server management packages that automatically scan for potential problems and alert managers before a server goes down. Some packages even include remote features that contact an IT manager's pager when a server component needs attention.

Customers also seek high-reliability features like redundant power supplies, hard drives, cooling fans and network interface cards, computer store representatives added.

Both Ingram Micro and MicroAge said Compaq, HP and IBM are their best-selling PC server brands to government.

Top-selling servers at the California State Computer Store are Intel-based machines from Compaq and HP. PC servers from Digital and IBM, and UNIX servers from HP, Sun and IBM are also popular, officials said.

Getting Tough

Responding to the demand for reliability, top-tier manufacturers now offer a laundry list of features aimed at making their PC servers nearly bullet-proof. For instance, "hot-plug" designs allow users to replace failed drives without shutting down the server. What's more, Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) allow these machines to survive a drive failure without data loss.

PC servers also offer Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory -- technology that lets them test for, and correct, memory errors on the fly -- and the ability to automatically route data around failed NICs to keep networks operating.

"At this point, if you look at our NetServer LX family of products, every subsystem is redundant but the motherboard," said Paoletti.

Sophisticated management tools also play a key role in keeping servers healthy. For instance, Compaq's Insight Manager monitors more than 1,000 variables, said Young. It keeps tabs on everything from how quickly drives are accessing data to how fast the cooling fan is turning. Any hint of trouble is relayed to an IT manager.

PC servers will make another jump in reliability with the expected release of a new Microsoft product -- code-named "Wolfpack" -- that allows clustering of Intel-based servers. Initially, Wolfpack will enable two PC servers to back up each other. If one fails, its processing load shifts to the other server.

Unlike the RISC/UNIX world, where clustering of multiple servers provides both extra reliability and increased performance, the initial phase of PC server clustering will only provide fail-safe redundancy. Later developments, expected sometime in 1998, will begin to add automatic load-balancing capabilities that allow clusters to combine their processing power.

However, HP intends to provide users with limited load-balancing capabilities by the end of the year, according to Paoletti. The company's ClusterView tool will allow network managers to manually balance applications across two servers when using the Wolfpack solution.

"Managers will drag and drop applications from one server to another via a GUI interface," he explained. "They would poll the systems to see what their CPU utilization is and move applications as appropriate."

An Alternative

Growing activity in the PC server market hasn't gone unnoticed by manufacturers of RISC-based machines, according to Smith, of IDC Government.

"In response to the encroachment of the PC servers on the RISC market, RISC prices are coming down, too," he said. "RISC manufacturers are not going to stand by. They have to make themselves more competitive."

Indeed, Sun Microsystems recently released a RISC-based machine with performance and pricing aimed squarely at the top of the PC server marketplace. The company's Enterprise 450 server offers as many as four 300MHz, 64 bit RISC processors; 4GB of memory and 84GB of internal disk drive capacity.

The machine, which uses the Solaris UNIX operating system, provides both reliability and scalability, according to Dave Douglas, director of marketing for Sun workgroup servers. "The feedback we get consistently from customers is that the Solaris machines just plain stay up a lot longer than those with (Windows) NT," he said.

Douglas said the Enterprise 450 benefits from the UNIX world's lengthy experience with features like multiple processors. "Four-way is kind of easy for us these days," he said, noting that Sun offers UNIX servers with as many as 64 processors. "The challenge wasn't getting the scalability. It was getting the price point."

Douglas added that Sun now designs its UNIX servers to coexist with Windows NT machines. For instance, the Enterprise 450 includes a new SunLink software package that lets it connect with Windows, Windows NT, NetWare, Macintosh and OS/2 operating systems.

"We understand there are reasons in some cases to go out and buy an NT server," said Douglas. "We just see it's going to be a mixed environment."

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