More Machines, Fewer Servers

Arthur Cole

The recession clearly gave a hit to data center technology, but probably the worst hit was the server market.

On the one hand, technologies like virtualization came along just in time to help enterprises stretch their capital budgets through the lean times. On the other, it meant dramatically lower server sales for much of the past year.

But now it seems like we're about to see a spike in demand. All those aging servers doing quadruple duty in virtual environments are starting to show their age, leading IDC to predict a healthy refresh rate in the months ahead even though a growing portion of that new hardware will be virtualized as well.

Essentially, then, what we should expect from here on in is a steadily stabilizing server market that is merely a shadow of what it was when pure physical infrastructure ruled the roost. That's essentially what Gartner admitted at its Symposium/ITExpo this week. Virtual and logical server deployments are expected to hit 58 million by 2012, which is about double the number of physical machines in use today. But depending on the consolidation ratios, the actual hardware being shipped out likely will be only a fraction of what we saw just before the financial crisis hit.

That's undoubtedly why we're seeing so many new specialty or niche servers entering the channel. Intel has been busy promoting its microserver technology with plans to submit the specs to the Server System Infrastructure Forum as a possible standard, offering compatibility for middleware and application layers and boosting the installed base for the Nehalem processors that power the machines. The idea is to make them small, cheap and highly networkable, so that adding a new server is no more a challenge that swapping a new disk drive in the storage array.

At the same time, you have Cisco releasing its own server design, but only as one component of an overall data center platform that ties server, storage and networking into an integrated whole. It seems that gone are the days when decisions about server and processing power came first and all other infrastructure decisions flowing outward from there.

Ultimately, as virtualization and multicore technology develop even further, it's not hard to imagine the data center powered by a single massive box, outfitted with thousands of microservers each partitioned into hundreds, perhaps, thousands of virtual machines.

I've been trying to think of a catchy name for this new type of hardware. How about "mainframe"? It has a nice ring to it.

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