Application-specific servers are gaining credibility

Companies struggling with management issues are starting to take a closer look at an emerging type of single-purpose server that is easier to install and maintain.

Labelled thin servers, network-based servers or server appliances, these are any specialized hardware device designed to perform a single or specialized set of server functions, be manageable via a Web browser and have a closed box.

“You can’t add new software to it, you can’t reconfigure very easily and it’s not going to have an easy-open back that [allows you to] change out things,” said James Staten, a senior analyst at Dataquest in San Jose, Calif.

Dataquest predicts global revenue from the thin server market will grow from just more than US$1 billion in 1997 to US$16 billion by 2002. The boom is expected primarily because of the escalating costs of managing IT resources, Staten explained.

“NT is extremely resource-intensive — it crashes more often than it should and it’s more complex than it should be. And if you are running a mixed environment of Unix and NT, then you have more than doubled your IT cost,” Staten said.

Systems that need to be managed less hold a big attraction in these situations, he said.

Intel Corp. has acknowledged the growing momentum of this market with its recently announced intention of developing platform specifications for thin servers, which the company hopes will help alleviate some of the confusion surrounding the term.

“Thin servers mean different things to different people. Physically, [these can take the form of] a box that’s a few inches high and slides into a rack. And if you need more performance you can add another on,” said Doug Cooper, Canadian marketing manager of Toronto-based Intel of Canada Ltd. “They can also be servers that don’t have a lot of disk space, but have lots of memory.”

Ottawa-based WindDance Networks Corp. has a new thin server called Breeze, targeted primarily at small businesses and remote offices.According to Tony McNeil, vice-president of project management for WindDance, on one end of the appliance market there are large enterprise servers providing a range of functionality, and on the other end small single-function appliances such as print spoolers.