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Resellers looking at the future of the server market could be for-given for thinking they were back in the bad old days of proprietary 'lock-em-in' systems. The picture today is almost as confusing as it was in those days when the youthful inexperience of early resellers often meant going with the company that offered the highest commission or biggest discounts to resellers on its hardware.

Remember those days? Apart from the commission consideration, you picked a vendor that you thought had a long term future, you wrote your applications and developed systems that suited the vendor's proprietary hardware architecture and operating system and then you trotted off to market.

That was before client/server and open systems, right? Well, yes and no. It all depends on where you sit; who you talk to; and if there's an "r" in the month (well not quite).

For the purpose of this article we'll assume a server is a data server. That is, it is a computing resource used by several client systems - normally desktop PCs or workstations.

Servers come in all shapes, sizes and flavours.

These range from systems built on a single chip such as Intel's Pentium Pro and Apple's PowerPC chip set, up to massively parallel systems.

Looking at the hardware, companies in the market break into several distinct groups. In one corner are those that have standardised on a single de facto standard architecture or are moving towards a single architecture. For the sake of simplicity, let's call them the singles. Then we have companies that have two architectures for different areas of the total IT market - the doubles. Finally, we have the rarest of them all, a company that has for historical reasons retained two proprietary architectures and is also a double - IBM.

Typifying the singles is Compaq. It has kept its feet firmly in Intel-based hardware and offered either MS-DOS/Windows, Windows NT or Unix operating systems. Compaq's rack-mountable ProLiant range of servers are targeted at the mid to high end of the performance range. They have helped consolidate Compaq's position as the leading server supplier. Some analysts have suggested Compaq has as much as 80 per cent of the server market for systems based on Intel's Pentium Pro processor.

Compaq's server distributor for Australia is MUA. That company's managing director, Paul McQuarrie, has seen Compaq's ProLiant servers begin replacing RISC systems in many organisations and challenge RISC-based servers in systems with up to 300 users.

Leading proponents of RISC systems include Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and IBM. But as we shall see later, HP and Big Blue also have a foot in the CISC - ie Intel - market.

"There used to be a dividing line between Intel and RISC of systems with about 50 users but the dividing line is moving up," McQuarrie said. "Intel-based servers and SCO Unix can now handle several hundred users comfortably."

McQuarrie said Microsoft's Windows NT operating system - while gaining ground on the various flavours of Unix - still needed "more grunt" to handle the volume of users that Unix can handle. "NT doesn't scale well but it is good for small systems and print and file servers - not large application servers," he said.

Although with very few resellers, NCR is also a typical singles company. It has also based its server business on the Intel architecture. "It has proven to be a very good decision," said Mark Taylor, NCR Australia's marketing manager for mid- to low-range systems. "The price/performance characteristics of the Intel-based systems are now beginning to match and exceed that of RISC-based systems," he said.

The company has made what appears to be breakthroughs in multiprocessor servers by being able to expand four-processor servers into eight-processor servers. At its partners and users conference held earlier this month in San Diego, NCR launched the WorldMark 4300 and gave an indication of the direction in which the Intel-based market is moving.

The WorldMark 4300 permits the expansion from four to eight Intel Pentium Pro processors by adding another circuit board in the same cabinet. By eliminating the need for duplicate components, NCR claims its approach to SMP servers is more cost effective than competitive systems. It has already announced support for up to 4,096 Pentium Pro processors in massively parallel systems. This is based on technology pioneered by Teradata - now part of NCR.

While not every reseller is going to find a market for a server with several thousand Pentium Pro chips, it does give an indication of how the Intel architecture can be scaled from a single processor upwards.

Proponents of RISC technology - such as that found in IBM's RS/6000 series - have always claimed a performance break on the CISC technology typified by the Intel Pentium series. NCR's Mark Taylor admits there was a performance gap between newer RISC technology and the established CISC technology. He agreed with MUA's McQuarrie. "That gap is rapidly closing," Taylor said. "With the release of Intel's P7/Merced 64-bit chip that gap will have vanished," he concluded.

For several years, Digital Equipment has been pushing its 64-bit technology through its Alpha chip set. The folk at Digital like to say the major difference between 32-bit technology and 64-bit technology is in the 33rd bit. Operating system is Windows NT, Unix or Digital's own Open VMS - the latter a very popular choice with its large installed base that is migrating from Digital's 32-bit proprietary VAX hardware architecture.

"It is now acknowledged by everyone that 64-bit technology is the way of the future," said Digital's Rolf Jester. "But some are there and some are not," he said. "I'm happy to say we're there and have been for some time." For its desktop and low-end boxes, Digital uses the Intel chip set. The Alpha chips are used in larger servers and workstations. That makes Digital one of the doubles.

"But there's more to 64-bit computers than a chip set." said Rolf Jester. "You also need a 64-bit operating system and applications that take advantage of the increased power of the hardware," he said. "The longevity of the architecture is the key. Users would prefer not to have vendors asking them to upgrade their hardware in a few years."

Users agree. A recent buyer of Digital's 64-bit technology was Blackwoods, the industrial supplies, metals and electrical products distributor. "Like many customers new to Digital, Blackwoods realised that 64-bit computing is the best investment for its current and future computing needs," said Peter Hatten, group MIS manager for Blackwoods. "It was a real plus that we were at the start of a new technology curve with 64-bit computing," he said when the company decided to move to AlphaServers.

Another of the doubles, but for a different reason, is Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems (SNIS). The local subsidiary of Europe's largest computer company has a range of Intel-based servers. These spread from a single processor system up to quad processor systems that can be cascaded together.

The company also owns Pyramid - a specialist in large data centre systems based on RISC technology.

Scott Caulfield said SNIS was still developing its server and reseller strategy in Australia. "We're looking at the market as a whole and focusing on market segments and bringing in channel partners that can work with us on those segments," he said. "We're not necessarily looking at just the Intel servers," he added.

IBM's server range spans four distinct families of computers - the Unix-based RISC System/6000 (RS/6000) series, the AS/400 series, based on IBM's proprietary OS/400 operating system, Intel-based servers and, finally, the S/390 servers and MVS operating systems which can be traced back to the hulking mainframes of the mid-1960s.

The RS/6000 is a scalable family of Unix solutions ranging from the laptop to massively parallel processor market. It was introduced as IBM's flag-ship Unix system in 1990. Running the AIX operating system, all RS/6000 solutions are binary compatible.

The AS/400 family of business computers was first announced in June 1988. A successor to the System/3X series of mid-range computers, it has since gone on to become one of the most successful mid-range computers the world has ever seen. Over 275,000 AS/400s have been sold worldwide, with more than 2,500 sold in Australia and 700 in New Zealand.

The AS/400's operating system, OS/400, contains a built-in relational database (DB2/400), systems management, security, user interfaces and communications.

While the RS/6000 is aimed at the open system market, the AS/400 is protecting IBM's massive proprietary mid-range installed base, yet at the same time offering links into the open system world. More recently, IBM has bid for a share of the Intel-based server business and has announced it's opening its S/390 business to the reseller channel.

IBM PC Company recently signed a division of MUA to distribute IBM's Intel-based servers in the market for Web-based solutions in the corporate area. "It's a different business to our Compaq server business," said MUA's McQuarrie. At Compaq, spokesperson Anne Eckert agreed. "It simply gives the customer a greater choice," she said.

When the company announced a deeper push into marketing through resellers, IBM's Rory Mack said that the company had developed a more clearly defined plan for working with business partners to reach small and medium-sized customers. "That also includes large customers," said Mack, national business partner manager and manager of IBM Australia's value-added remarketing program.

Appearing less confusing than IBM's offerings for the server market is Hewlett-Packard's range. One of the innovators in RISC technology with its PA-RISC architecture, HP recently announced the extension of its RISC PA-8000 technology to a range of enterprise servers. While the processor is the PA-8000, the servers are known as the HP 9000 series.

At the lower end, HP has Intel-based systems known as Net Servers. Typically aimed at small to medium workgroups and using Windows NT, these compete with the other numerous Intel-based servers.

"Certainly the Intel-based servers are very strong in their own right, but for enterprise-wide computing, they don't have the scalability of Unix-based 64-bit RISC systems," said HP Australia's John Knaggs.

The HP 9000 series comes in three sizes, the two-processor D class, the 4-way K class and the 12 processor T class. Knaggs sees the D class as competing favourably with the four-way Intel Pentium Pro servers. "The K and T class are aimed at medium to large enterprises," he said.

As with Digital's 64-bit AlphaServers, the new HP servers offer mainframe class performance at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, HP made a great deal of fuss recently when it switched off its last mainframe and moved its entire enterprise to its own worldwide network of servers. That's no mean feat for an organisation operating in close to 100 countries and with more than 100,000 employees and revenues of $30 billion.

It shows what the server business is now capable of doing for organisations of any size.

So at the end of the day, what should a reseller do? Toss a coin? Bank on Intel or punt on something else? What is clear is that Intel has control of the small to medium end of the server market. As Intel servers move up in performance, so the 64-bit players - notably Digital and HP - are also ramping up performance to beyond the old traditional mainframe levels.

But that's the state of play today. "Just wait until Intel releases its own 64-bit chip next year," said NCR's Mark Taylor. By then, the next version of Windows NT could be around and further nibble at the Unix market.

The last word on this goes to Graeme Philipson, research director analyst with Strategic Publishing Group. "I've never seen such a mass move towards an operating environment as the move to NT," he said. "Our research shows there will be a major move away from Unix to NT."

But wasn't open systems supposed to be all about not tying yourself to one vendor?

Fast Facts

- More than ever, servers come in all shapes, sizes and flavours- Some analysts have suggested Compaq has as much as 80 per cent of the server market for systems based on Intel's Pentium Pro processor- For several years, Digital Equipment has been pushing its 64-bit technology through its Alpha chip set- Hewlett-Packard was one of the innovators in RISC technology with its PA-RISC architecture


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