Single Purpose, Single Chance

It seems like people in the computer industry enjoy living in a world that is in a state of constant change. Why else would the computer industry be so filled with "revolutionary" ideas?

You could blame it on the marketing people who make their living hyping anything they can position as new and different. Then again, you could blame it on those of us in the media who are always looking for the next big story to break.

Well, here we go again. The next big thing may be "single-purpose" servers.

Recent history is littered with revolutionary products that either die on the vine or barely continue to cling to life. NetPCs never got close to making it into general use, although an interesting side effect did -- the inexpensive, relatively high-performance PCs you can buy anywhere and everywhere.

Is the latest trend for using single-purpose systems a fad, or is it something new and different?

There is no simple answer. This could be another "anything but insert-name-of-current-dominating-vendor" technology. To be certain, there’s more than a hint of "anything but Microsoft" here.

The analyst community is buying into the single-purpose server concept, and right behind them we, the members of the press, are starting to play it up, too.

But maybe, just maybe, the single-purpose server actually solves problems for IT managers, and this is not hype.

To be certain, Larry Ellison’s crusade with his "Raw Iron" initiative -- running Oracle8i atop a slim operating system layer supplied by Sun Microsystems -- is "anything but Microsoft" in nature. But it also highlights a problem Oracle and other database vendors face when competing with Microsoft: price. By lowering the operating system cost and overhead, Oracle8i -- at least in theory -- should perform better on smaller, less expensive hardware.

Oracle aside, there is a precedent for such a system. Are not network attached storage and network file servers, by definition, single-purpose servers? Although NAS has yet to become a dominant technology, file server machines from Auspex Systems Inc. and Network Appliance Inc. have been used for many years.

A single-purpose server simplifies administration of a given machine. More importantly, it can slim down what the processor has to do, allowing the CPU to devote a higher percentage of its physical resources and computing cycles to running the application rather than running the operating system.

I first heard about this term when recently discussing Linux with an analyst. Linux proponents cite the benefits of being able to slim down the operating system components to the bare minimum, which is why performance on a Linux configuration can be good -- better many proponents say -- than an equivalent NT configuration.

The concept of a single-purpose server is not foreign to Windows NT users. How many Windows NT machines do you know of that are running a heavy-duty database operation, doing Web serving and running Exchange Server? Probably none.

Instead, most NT shops tend to have multiple systems, each one running a limited set of applications. Sure, you can run several applications all on your primary domain controller, but that’s not typical. Hardware is cheap and easily accessible. Why put all your eggs in one basket?

The negative for NT is that even deployed as a single-purpose server, you must still lug around 10 million lines of Windows NT code, even if your machine is doing nothing more than simple print and file support. With Windows 2000, you will have another 20 million to 30 million lines of code to slog through -- a pretty thick foundation for a single-purpose deployment.

If the single-purpose server is something that will become popular, how will Microsoft respond? With the ever-increasing line count in Windows 2000 and a policy of a single code base for each version of Windows NT and Windows 2000, Microsoft seems out of sync with this trend.

The question remains, is this the single-purpose servers single chance at fame, or is it a shift that makes sense for future IT deployments? Please send your thoughts to me at gillenam@entmag.com.