Small servers to have big role in data centers of the future

A panel of experts makes some predictions for the near future of data centers.

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Data center planning has typically revolved around mainframes and traditional high-end servers. But experts think the future may look a bit different. Instead of managing "big iron" and building their strategic plans around servers, tomorrow's managers may find themselves focusing on Intel-type servers that run Windows or Linux, while building their strategic plans (and their server strategies) around their data.

In order to get some better perspective on the types of changes you might expect to see in the data center in the next 5 to 10 years, we asked a panel of four experts -- including two analysts, a mainframe expert and a data warehousing expert -- to provide predictions about what data centers will look like. We wanted to know which vendors would be the winners, which systems would be important, and to what extent data centers of the future will be different from today's.

According to the experts, one of the key differences may be the role of the mainframe. "Our current course says the mainframe does not fair very well -- dropping down to about 10% of data center computing capacity," says Rob Schafer, program director for enterprise data center strategies at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn. "Our view is Microsoft's Windows 2000 and Linux will dominate, with proprietary Unix losing." The main driver of this migration from mainframes and proprietary Unix systems is cost, not technology, with smaller servers running Microsoft and Linux becoming extremely competitive.

Part of this change in the mixture of operating systems may come about because of the changing role of servers. Future servers are expected to be much more flexible -- with the ability to fit into a group and yet adapt to different types of computing tasks. "We project the future server to be a device with an electronically configurable set of switched connections that allows various blade-like resources -- processors, memory, networking and storage -- to be defined into systems," says Carl Claunch, a vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Such component-oriented servers will allow easy adaptation to everything from horizontal scaling applications (like Web services) to vertically scaling applications (such as database servers). In addition, Claunch notes that such server clusters will be able "to rapidly add, drop or replace elements as needed."

Such flexibility will be important, as the applications and business data driving data center decisions changes. Whereas data centers historically have tended to focus on the security, reliability and availability of operational transactional data, many data centers may find themselves shifting focus so that they're investing more resources in the management of business intelligence data. "Data warehousing data will dwarf transactional systems," says Bill Inmon, an author and recognized expert on data warehousing and corporate information. "A lot of the data warehouses will be in the hands of non-IT organizations, and applications built off them [such as CRM, churn management or elasticity management] will expand."

But how will organizations deal with this explosion of data? Steve Samson, mainframe expert and a senior technical staff member at El Segundo, Calif.-based Candle Corp., sees this dramatically increasing need for online and archival data access as a factor that's driving new storage technologies. "I expect that holographic storage, or some other archival medium with 1,000 to 100,000 times today's media, will mature," says Samson. "One consequence will be the disappearance of routine backup; only geographically dispersed backup for disaster recovery will continue."

The Meta Group's Schafer concurs on the importance of the role of storage in future data centers. "The storage tail will be wagging the server dog," says Schafer, "It will move from being a peripheral for servers to taking center stage, and it [will] be an interesting shift for organizations like Sun." Schafer sees storage becoming the hub of the data center, while servers become the spokes. Another way to think about it is that today's servers will become the peripherals to the central storage area network.

Managing all these components will still remain a critical (and increasing complex) job. According to Gartner, policy-based computing services (PBCS) initiatives from leading vendors will enable organizations to reduce complexity and manage systems through business policies associated with users, applications and service expectations. For example, "HP's utility data center and IBM's autonomic computing projects are aimed at realizing the PBCS future," says Claunch. "Software, particularly hardware vendor-agnostic tools, will integrate these functions across the heterogeneous, multivendor data centers that are a reality for most users."

So, who are the winners? Samson sees IBM and HP continuing to be major players, while Sun and Apple may find themselves with reduced roles, unless they abandon proprietary software. Meanwhile, Inmon thinks application vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft will be driving the industry.

"Barring dramatic technological upheaval, the top players of the future data center will be very similar to today's mix," says Gartner's Claunch. "Generally, the strongest players, such as HP, Sun, IBM, Dell, EMC, Hitachi, CA, BMC, Microsoft, EDS and Accenture will be the players that remain significant at the end of the decade in data centers."


David A. Kelly is a business, technology and travel writer who lives in West Newton, Mass.

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This was first published in December 2002

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