Hardware Today: Server Sales Hype 101

Monday Feb 9th 2004 by Ben Freeman

Shopping for a server can be akin to navigating an obstacle course, requiring savvy and a strong skill set. This week, Hardware Today deconstructs the Top 10 buzzwords enterprises typically encounter on the server showroom floor.

Shopping for a server can be akin to navigating an obstacle course, requiring much skill and guile. The biggest problem many enterprises encounter is matching vague pricing to confusing feature sets. Buzzwords proliferate on all sides, confusing first-time shoppers and grizzled veterans alike. Fancy new technologies and terms emerge so quickly that it becomes difficult to discern between a red herring and a must-deploy technology.

This week, Hardware Today deconstructs the Top 10 buzzwords enterprises typically encounter on the server showroom floor.

1. Enterprise: Any medium- to large-sized company (or non-for-profit organization or government agency) dressed up for sales-time excitement. Admittedly, even we have a tendency to use "enterprise," primarily because it is more inclusive than business or company. However, try referring to your place of employment as "the enterprise" when talking to a co-worker first thing Monday morning. Slight hints of Star Trek take aim with tricorder accuracy at the stereotypical dorky IT professional; perfect for your mission. For some reason, small and medium businesses are generally described directly, albeit often shortened to SMB. The conundrum here is what to do if you operate a medium business, given that both ranges apply.

2. Base Price (AKA "From ..."): Starting price, which is typically much lower than the ultimate cost of the server. As an example, consider IBM's xSeries 365, a 4-way Xeon-based rack server with a base price of $15,999. Two processors come standard; upgrading to four adds $11,498 to the price. No operating system is included; Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition adds $3,209. Standard RAM is 2 GB; add a cool $28,788 for the upgrade to 32 GB. Six hot-swappable high-end hard drives, and the least-expensive keyboard and monitor bring the final price to $65,930.95, roughly four times the base price. Sure, an enterprise could opt for the less-expensive Linux OS, or choose less extravagant add-ons, but the point remains that it's easy to be lulled into spending $10,000 in add-ons for a server with a $10,000 base price.

3. Entry-Level: Bare minimum -- in some ways, barely a server. Dell, for example, describes its PowerEdge 400 SC as an entry-level value server. The "Small Business Value Server," with a $349 base price, is "Ideal for cost-conscious first-time server buyers with simple IT needs." In other words, this server costs next to nothing because it is capable of doing next to nothing. The product is described as "easy to set up, run, and troubleshoot" -- not much can run on it, so not much can go wrong. (It can function as a File/Print Server for up to 10 users, but so can nearly any modern computer.)

4. Mission-Critical: A militaristic way of saying high availability, which is itself a fancy way of saying that if the server crashes in production, it's bad. At the side of the server room opposite from entry-level servers, mission-critical servers are the Humvees of the server room, providing highway security overkill where a seatbelt might suffice (which is not to say that some situations do not require higher availability than others). Consider HP NonStop Servers, for example. HP claims its NonStop Servers can physically "eliminate" any threats to uptime. "With multiple levels of fault tolerance built in, your NonStop servers are designed to deliver 100 percent availability ..." it reads, "... But even the best redundant systems cannot, in themselves, eliminate every downtime threat to your strategic business operations."

But then the literature switches gears, away from the dire threat of violence and toward a kinder, gentler terminology: "That's why HP Mission Critical Services for NonStop Systems feature a holistic approach that addresses all the diverse factors that affect system performance and availability." Perhaps the "holistic approach" can be used to tend kindly to any wounded downtime threat attackers that the server had fended off, without having "eliminated."

5. Data Center: The latest glossy term for "server room." Other terms that have surfaced over the years include "server farm," "shop," "glass house," and "server closet."

6. Scale-Out: Modular, theoretically interchangeable, and lacking big stars, a scale-out model typically involves many 1- to 4-way servers instead of few more-powerful ones, as is the case with its scale-up sibling. Although scale-out represents a 180 degree turn from scale-up, it has not prevented vendors from sticking to both guns in their sales strategies. Consider this rather schizophrenic line in a November 17, 2003 press release from Sun Microsystems (which until last year was focused on scale-up): "Sun will continue to develop and deliver solutions for both scale-out and scale-up workloads with its UltraSPARC processor."

Server sprawl is a common byproduct of scale-out deployments, and questions like "Where's the print server?" are not unusual. Forrester Principal Analyst Frank Gillett sees scale-out as worthwhile, assuming disciplined management is employed. "Scale-out can work, if people approach it in a disciplined fashion, but IT has not been about discipline in the last decade, particularly in the Intel world," he says. "To get the next level of capability and cost deduction, you've got to get disciplined, about buying the right products, thinking ahead, choosing the right architecture, and reducing variability in your data center."

7. Scale-Up: Big, centralized servers, often mainframes. In general, mainframes trade-off easy manageability and power for potentially difficult migration or upgrade paths. As such, they are considered an outdated idea in some circles. Confusion emerges when the major vendors, which, with the exception of Unisys, tout both scale-up and scale-out offerings, use the same terminology to praise scale-out and scale-up in separate places. If the vendors haven't clearly chosen between strategies, how should the users? Consider, for example, the wording of this Unisys recent press release, titled, "Unisys' ES7000 Meets the Scale-up Requirements of the PeopleSoft 8 Internet Architecture." It notes, "companies are now faced with a proliferation of small and midrange systems that are incompatible, unable to share information, and difficult or impossible to manage consistently." The document goes on to say, "Nearly all major server suppliers, notably HP, IBM, and Unisys, are talking about server consolidation." It then defines server consolidation as "the process of replacing those small and midrange distributed servers ("scale-out") with highly scalable or "scale-up" servers."

Forrester's Gillett sees scale-up as viable, albeit shrinking, proposition, "The data center will continue to have scale-up, but I'm betting that it's a shrinking percentage of the total capacity of the data center because of the compelling economics of Intel and the two inexpensive operating systems, Windows and Linux," he concludes.

8. Grid Computing: A collection of scale-out computers stitched together to, in essence, form one super-computer. Despite much hype, grid computing has made few inroads in the enterprise and remains the domain of science and university applications. When looking at new and emerging technology like grid computing, Gartner's oft-referenced "Hype Cycle" is a useful model to determine the current practical value and deployment window. Its "Hype Cycle for Servers, 2003" (published in May 2003) cites "Growing confusion over definitions, benefits, maturity, and applicability" for grids in the enterprise. Despite hype to the contrary, it argues, pragmatic commercial grid applications are as much as five to 10 years away. One reason for confusion might be that the term grid is "sometimes misused to denote the related technologies of distributed and utility computing." But alas, the report concludes: "Little is known about what commercial grid applications might be."

9. Utility computing: A hypothetical environment in which a number of scale-out computers and IT resources can be redeployed on the fly to meet changing business needs. Phrases like "on-demand computing" and "Adaptive Enterprise" are synonymous with utility computing: All are feel-good terms created to persuade buyers that redeployable technology is the solution for all that ails. On one side, most technologies have utility, are somewhat adaptive, or can be redeployed "on demand," as needed, thus rendering the terms a bit useless. On the other, lack of true interoperability between technologies and operating systems can lend these terms the hype-only frustration of grid computing. The natural offshoot of these "plug and play" type ideas is that the IT department becomes commoditized, possibly encouraging enterprises to outsource their entire IT organization or take it offshore.

10. Total cost of ownership (TCO): The true cost of owning a server, including IT management, power, accessories, repairs, and the time spent taking the Fujitsu service guys out to lunch. In theory, TCO is a truly useful concept to consider when making a server purchase. In practice, however, even the most obviously expensive vendor can claim that its product reduces TCO based on a given factor. Consider a recent Web-based ad for Microsoft Windows 2000, which asserts "Windows server offers a savings of 11 percent to 22 percent over Linux in 4 out of 5 workload scenarios." The ad links to a Microsoft "Facts" site, where a Microsoft-sponsored study asserts "Lower Windows Staffing Costs Provide a TCO Advantage over Linux."

NIKA Consulting's Stephen Adams sees this differently, and backs it up with a real-life example. He describes a mail deployment where a company "needed to support 50-plus offices and 1,600 people with e-mail." He notes, "Using Exchange required 50 servers and four full-time staff " Using Linux, Adams claims, "it could have been done with fewer than five servers, and supported by no more than two people."

Microsoft's fact bent is obviously pro-Microsoft; Adams' is pro-Linux, thus proving our point that TCO can be used in basically any argument.

But we'll trust the imparitial guy in the field.

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