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It’s been a persistent rumour for several years that mainframes are about to step down and make way for systems based on what is, fundamentally, PC architecture.
That view has rightly been derided by those involved with high-end systems processing huge amounts of data. With the maturing of electronic business and the shift towards the pervasive and seamless network, the need for the robust, reliable, powerful data-crunching at which mainframes excel is rising rather than falling.
Yet things are changing in ways which will have major impacts on enterprise computing. This week Microsoft launched three elements within its Windows 2000 family – Professional, Server and Advanced Server. Perhaps more importantly, Data Center Server is due out in mid-2000 which coincides with the launch of Intel’s Itanium 64-bit processor (formerly known as Merced).
Storage technology is developing rapidly, both in capacity and rapid access, with EMC and other big players introducing innovative new techniques. Companies such as EMC’s subsidiary, Data General, as well as Unisys, Bull, HP, IBM and its subsidiary Sequent, are developing or extending techniques to combine multiple processors. Storage companies are also working to partition hardware servers to run multiple operating systems according to demand.
At the same time, user expectations are rising. It has long seemed an absurdity that it’s not possible, except in fairly small databases, to query live data. Instead, users must work through replicated warehouses which are snapshots frozen in time.
Fixed, cleaned, historic data is sometimes required, of course, but that’s a choice which many would prefer to be open to the user rather than dictated by processing limitations. With the growing need for dynamic analysis and rapid response, fuelled by the internet, such expectations and associated demands will increase.
According to Mike McCormac, business manager of Intel server division at Bull, there has been a significant shift in perception over Windows NT, now Windows 2000, over the past 18 months.
“No one would then have dreamed of putting a large SAP installation on to NT,” he says. “But now there’s a measurable and growing use and NT is starting to become very important.”
Bull’s Express 5800 series uses symmetric multi-processing (SMP) technology to offer up to 8-way processor systems with duplicated, hot-swappable power supplies and significant amounts of memory and input/output (I/O).
NT4 can handle just four processors with clustering available for pairs of servers, but Windows 2000 takes this much further. Advanced Server now supports 8-way SMP and 2-way clustering, although this increases to four-node clusters under Data Center Server.
An important addition is the introduction of network load balancing (NLB), for both these server editions, which allows up to 32 servers to be managed as a unit with traffic distributed evenly among them according to demand and configuration.
“I expect a significant number of 16- and 32-way systems to be available by the end of the year,” McCormac says.
Data General, like Bull, approaches Windows 2000 from the mainframe rather than the desktop environment and is possibly less focussed on NT although Steve Aucoin, director of Aviion Product Marketing, believes its importance is growing.
Limits on SMP technology restricts the number of processors to eight. Data General offers up to that number in its 8900 series running NT, which is capable of being mounted five-up in a standard rack.
In its high-end products, Data General moves beyond the limitations of SMP by employing its particular variation on non-uniform memory access (Numa) technology and utilising Intel’s server motherboards and interconnect bridging.
The 25000 series, for example, supports up to 64 Intel Xeon processors with 64Gbytes of system memory, but appears as a single SMP system. AVFlex partitioning allows one 4-way block to run NT with the balance running Unix.
According to Aucoin, Data General builds from industry standard components rather than utilising proprietary technology.
Hewlett-Packard is similarly offering eight-way Intel servers – its Netserver 8500 series – with up to 32Gbytes of system memory and focussing on Advanced Server as the key operating system.
IBM is also in this area, although it is concentrating on Linux and AIX rather than NT. The latest addition to its Netfinity series – the Netfinity 400R – is aimed at the internet service provider and growing application service provider markets.
Although only a 2-SMP product, albeit with up to 2Gbyte system memory and 1.5 terabits per second (Tbps) storage capacity, it’s less than two inches high and designed so that 42 units can be fitted into a standard rack.
Unisys, in contrast, is heavily committed to Microsoft and sees Windows 2000 as the future. Previewed at Comdex Fall in November 1999, its ES7000, which is due for release in March, is an extremely powerful enterprise server which uses mainframe-style crossbar architecture to provide direct communication paths between components, most of which are hot-swappable.
There are up to eight sub-pods, each with four Intel Xeon processors but which are capable of using the Itanium 64-bit processors when these become available. Each pod presently has 8-16Mbytes third-level cache – those figures doubling for IA-64 pods – and each can support 12 PCI channels so giving 96 in total.
Maximum memory is 64Gbytes and the aggregate memory bandwidth 20Gbps. There are dual power sectors as well as dual service processors to provide redundancy. The latter continually monitors the working of the systems and manages dynamic configurations and management of resource allocation, with support for electronic service requests.
The system uses Unisys’s CMP technology to handle partitioning. The ES7000 can appear as a single 32-SMP system or as partitioned variants, using CMP, based on 4-block units and running any mix of Windows NT4, Windows 2000 or SCO UnixWare.
The combination of the Unisys ES7000 with Intel 64-bit processors and Windows 2000 Data Center Server is light years away from a 386 running Windows 3.0, despite the observations of some that not much has changed since then.
It remains to be seen whether Windows 2000 will live up to the claims of reliability, robustness and scalability being made. Analysts GartnerGroup and the Aberdeen Group are among those who believe it will and that enterprise computing is about to change significantly.
Peter Slavid, business strategy manager with ICL, a key Microsoft partner, points out that a year ago choices were limited. Now, opportunities provided by various forms of Windows 2000, sophisticated hardware such as that from Unisys, and an approach which recognises the importance of designing and configuring complex systems for particular requirements, will transform enterprise computing.