The skinny on thin servers

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 over 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.” 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.

“We tend to be in the middle, where instead of doing a single function we do a single purpose,” he said. The Breeze’s role as a network server appliance allows it to function as both an Internet gateway and a LAN file server, in Mac, PC or mixed environments.

“We are not looking to revolutionize the desktop. What we are doing is taking a situation where customers have a need to network their machines together and get an Internet connection,” McNeil said.

In fact, thin servers are starting to take on greater responsibilities than they have had in the past, including enterprise-class e-mail servers, caching appliances, Web-servers and application servers. They seem to hold the most benefit for branch or satellite offices or data centres using mostly open system software applications, Dataquest’s Staten explained.

“If you are running Exchange or Notes or one of those other groupware-style e-mail programs, this won’t work for you. But if you are using POP3 or IMAP as your e-mail system, then these are ideal,” he said.

“But one of the limitations of most of the thin servers is once you start getting into esoteric things and features that it wasn’t really designed to do, you are probably better off with a general-purpose box.” However, even in these situations, they are still beneficial as a backup or to offload certain functions, he said.

The two major roadblocks to a wider adoption of thin servers in the enterprise space have to do with customer education and management, Staten said.

“Very few IT managers know what these things are, know correctly how to deploy them, understand how reliable these products are or have an idea of what they would do with them,” he said.

“Most thin servers at this point support SNMP for monitoring of the boxes, but don’t support higher-level management of the product. So it is hard to assign global access rights to multiple appliances.” However initiatives to be taken on by Sun Microsystems later this year, as well as wider-spread use of XML, will go a long way to change this, he said.