Sun Microsystems' recent acquisition of Cobalt Networks for a modest $2bn (£1.4bn) may be the first real evidence of something that the rest of the industry's general-purpose server suppliers don't really want to hear. The end of the all-purpose, "big box" server and the arrival of the cheap "server appliance" - cheap of course being a particularly dirty word in the Unix vocabulary.
For over a decade, hardware companies, such as IBM, HP and Sun, have concentrated on developing larger and more powerful genera-purpose servers, capable of running multiple and often mission-critical applications such as e-mail, Web-hosting and e-commerce simultaneously. Software companies, such as Lotus Development, now part of IBM, have, quite happily followed the trend, through the development of sophisticated, multi-purpose products, such as Lotus Domino.
However, the emergence of ASPs (application service providers), the arrival of the open-source Linux operating system and a changing perspective on the part of IT departments, threatens to eliminate the cosy and frequently expensive relationship that exists between hardware and software.
The 1980s were one long party for the hardware companies, and so was the age of client-server computing. In this new millennium, the IT demands of business are looking a little more streamlined because there's an increasing sense of the pragmatic in the drive to reduce costs.
Bigger and more expensive in a world of ballooning IT budgets isn't always best for business. Customers, according to research from IDC, rather like the new concept of application-specific servers, cheap but powerful off-the-shelf hardware installed and forgotten about, quite possibly running open-source software and capable of running a single-purpose, mission-critical task until it dies of old age.
This kind of plug-and-play notion of server evolution is bound to give the CEO's of many hardware suppliers sleepless nights. After all, their solution to the cost of ownership challenge was to produce even bigger boxes in a constant server consolidation exercise, rather like the assembly-lines of Detroit in the 1960s building ever-more powerful engines and larger cars. In IT terms, this has only led to an increase in the overall complexity of maintaining a multi-purpose software environment.
A skills crisis facing the industry makes server appliances as much an inevitability as the growth of the open-source software movement and the arrival of cheaper hardware. As everyone races to join the global networked economy, the demand for component-style simplicity and lower TCO (total cost of ownership) will drive the industry towards more unsophisticated single-purpose server-appliances.
Perhaps, and in the not-too-distant future, one will be able to walk into a PC World and collect an off-the-shelf server unit, preconfigured and ready to run in a selection of different application flavours.
Oscar Wilde once said that "true refinement seeks simplicity". This is a quality of server architecture that this industry of ours badly needs if the information economy is to become a more universal reality and not just an expensive luxury.
Simon Moores is chairman of The Research Group
This was first published in November 2000