The datacentre is undergoing considerable change, with more organisations starting to deploy technologies that consolidate their computing resources, bringing cost savings and efficiencies.
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Philip Dawson, vice-president enterprise systems at analyst firm Gartner, said server consolidation was still a dominant aspect of a lot of IT projects, but it is being superseded by server virtualisation.
Gartner believes virtualisation will become the most disruptive PC technology in a decade, because it allows multiple operating systems to run simultaneously on a single machine, effectively decoupling software from hardware.
Server virtualisation allows the IT manager to lower operational costs by running multiple enterprise applications on one server, or perhaps combining test and production environments on a single box.
As a result the technology has the potential to help IT departments maximise their use of existing equipment.
The popularity of VMWare's ESX Server, and rising interest in Microsoft's Virtual Server, indicate the mainstream growth of virtualisation technology.
However, Dawson warned, "At the moment, virtualisation is over-hyped and overpriced. People must see how they can use it, but next year the market will dilute, with products such as hardware virtualisation at the chip level and open source software from XEN becoming a stronger alternative to VMWare. The Longhorn hypervisor [virtualisation management software] will also move closer, putting pressure on VMware to go into the virtualisation management space along the lines of VMotion."
VMWare is planning to develop Linux and Solaris x86 operating systems in future releases of its virtual infrastructure products that are optimised to run in a virtual environment.
Microsoft is planning to release Virtual Server 2005 R2 this quarter, offering increased operational efficiency in server consolidation, application re-hosting, disaster recovery and software test and development. Microsoft will follow R2 with a product in 2006 offering greater support for the forthcoming Windows Vista.
One element of virtualisation that will enhance the datacentre is the concept of logical partitioning in server hardware, through technologies such as Intel's VT (Virtualisation Technology) and AMD's Pacifica.
This will allow each processor core to run multiple operating systems and applications independently of each other, potentially lowering datacentre comp- uting costs.
One element that is still lacking is an open standard for hypervisors - the software that manages operating systems and hardware resources in a virtualised environment. However, suppliers including AMD, BEA Systems, BMC Software, Cisco, CA, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Novell, and Red Hat are collaborating over hypervisor standards.
Another issue users face is licensing. Chris Ingle, group consultant systems group at analyst firm IDC, said,"At the moment, users get the cost and the confusion. Work still needs to be done on licensing."
Enterprise grid technology is an application of virtualisation that spreads application processing over tens, hundreds or thousands of PCs to make efficient use of their resources.
Grids are used by many scientific organisations, including nuclear physics lab Cern, which has a server farm of 8,000 Linux machines, carrying out simultaneous calculations. But will datacentre grids ever move beyond scientific computing?
Clive Longbottom, service director at analyst firm Quocirca, said grid computing is gaining broad acceptance because of the effectiveness and efficiencies that can be obtained from it.
Quocirca's recent Grid Index survey, commissioned by Oracle, found growing demand for the technology.
The main driver for users to deploy grid technology is to make better use of existing IT assets. According to Quocirca, businesses typically only achieve 29% utilisation on their IT assets.
Steve Boniwell, independent consultant and director of the HP User Group, said large organisations were adopting enterprise grids, but warned, "If you want to do it properly, partner up with a big player like IBM, Sun, HP, or a specialist in the Linux area".
Another area where the datacentre has changed this year is the mainstream adoption of 64-bit processing through Intel's Itanium and AMD's Opteron server processors. The technology allows applications to run faster by accessing larger chunks of processor memory.
Although 64-bit datacentre platforms are not new, and Risc architectures such as Sun's Ultrasparc or IBM's Power processor have boasted 64-bit for some time, Intel and AMD have made the technology more widely available.
64-bit computing started becoming popular when both Windows and Enterprise Linux operating systems supported it. Microsoft has said it will optimise a number of applications for x64, its hybrid 32/64-bit operating system. These will include Exchange Server 12, Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, Windows Server Longhorn, Small Business Server and Microsoft's infrastructure product for mid-size businesses, code-named Centro.
In October, nautical equipment manufacturer Kelvin Hughes became one of the first UK firms to implement an enterprise resource planning system based on 64-bit Itanium running the Linux operating system.
The system, run by four IT staff, supports 350 users at 11 sites in six countries. The company decided to use Linux because it did not require as much downtime for patching as other operating systems. Also, the enhanced performance of 64-bit systems was expected to improve productivity and support growth.
With the emergence of low-cost 64-bit and hybrid 32/64-bit hardware, multicore processors and server virtualisation, the trend of server consolidation is set to continue through 2006.
Server sales on the rise
Gartner figures show that users worldwide are investing in both 32-bit and 64-bit servers, with purchases rising sharply between the third quarters of 2004 and 2005.
The three major suppliers, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM saw sales rise, and 28% of x86 servers in use now come from HP, said Gartner.
As for Risc and Itanium Unix servers, organisations bought the largest number from Sun, followed by IBM and then HP.
Windows and Linux-based servers and server blades all saw stronger adoption over the past year, according to analyst firm IDC, but the number of Unix servers shipped declined overall in Q3 2005, compared with Q3 2004, said IDC.
Case study: AutoTrader grids
In November, magazine and website AutoTrader started to use computing grids to support a rapid expansion of its online motor exchange operations without the need for major capital investment in new enterprise servers. AutoTrader said that if it had not invested in grid technologies, it would have been forced into a Unix server upgrade, which would have meant a capital investment of more than £1m. Its grid runs Oracle Database 10g and Real Application Clusters on Sun v40z Opteron servers running Red Hat 3AS.