No Free Lunch

Like most software people I know, I’m a packrat. You just never know when you’ll need those notes or handouts from some tradeshow several years ago, so I’m buried with boxes full of material all over my house. My wife can’t understand why I would need copies of a DEC Alpha presentation from 1991, or why I would want a VAX architecture handbook from 1981. A few years ago, she threw out a coffee can full of vintage 1972 paper tapes I’d been keeping since I was in the ninth grade: I thought I was going have a heart attack.

My wife recently gave me an ultimatum: Throw out most of that old stuff before it takes over the house, or she’ll get rid of it all. As I was packing up boxes full of ancient notebooks and presentations to take to the trash, naturally, I had to stop and read them again. Some people are sentimental about jewelry, with me it’s old presentations -- especially the ones with subtle messages and heavy political overtones.

I came across the press notebook Microsoft put together for their Scalability Day event in New York three years ago. Through an unlikely sequence of events, I attended that show and wrote a few columns about the experience. Bill Gates’ keynote address, slide 10, triggered a long dormant memory. His talk that day was about the advantages of the PC computing model versus Unix. His main point was that the PC model is much less expensive to buy and operate than Unix. As part of his proof, he compared the cost of a large Compaq ProLiant with an equivalently configured Sun Server. The ProLiant cost about $61,000; the Sun Server cost more than $158,000. Clearly, the PC computing model, led by Microsoft, is much less expensive than any Unix environment, right?

A couple weeks ago I stumbled across an answer to that question. We counted the number of PC servers in the data center of one of my enterprise-sized customers. We came up with 136 in production. This included about a dozen Lotus Notes servers, 16 NetWare servers, several application servers, a bunch of NT servers, and gobs of other servers whose use the IT group couldn’t identify. Their Y2K test lab needed roughly 20 more PC servers just to simulate all their production applications.

This site also had an IBM mainframe, a few Sun and HP Unix machines, and a small DEC OpenVMS cluster. These environments have been more or less stable over the years, with occasional upgrades. But the number of PC servers exploded in recent years, and we expect it to continue growing. We all knew this customer had lots of servers, but I was shocked after actually quantifying them.

I have other customers with similar situations -- data centers that used to house mainframes now house racks and racks of PC servers, and these servers seem to multiply like rabbits. Assuming they are roughly equivalent in price to those same Compaq ProLiants Bill Gates talked about three years ago, and assuming a population of roughly 100 servers, that’s about $6.1 million dollars in "low-cost" hardware acquisition cost. Add to that the cost of supporting over 100 copies of server operating systems, an enormously complex web of applications with pieces on desktops and servers all over the place, and a network of routers, switches, fiber interconnects, and aloof telephone companies with tentacles everywhere. Suddenly those low-cost PC servers gobble some serious money.

What’s going on? What happened to those little department LANs that were supposed to free enslaved users from the tyranny of the IT department?

It all comes back to marketing. Back in the late 1980s, Microsoft delivered a graphical user interface to everyone’s desktop. Because of that effort, everyone thought they could do serious computing on the cheap. The rest is history.

My point here is not to bash Microsoft, although they can be a tempting target. We all should have known that there is no such thing as a free lunch. After more than a dozen years of work, I hope we’ve finally figured out that the so-called low cost client/server architectural model really requires an enormous investment in capital and labor, just like the ancient mainframes and mini computers of 10-15 years ago. The difference this time is that it sneaked up on everyone a few thousand bucks at a time. So instead of buying a couple multimillion dollar mainframes, we bought hundreds of smaller PC servers. And by now, many young people in our industry don’t even realize there is another alternative.

Perhaps the real lesson is, complex is complex, and no technology by itself will simplify a complex world.

Those old presentations are still valuable. I think I’ll them around for a while longer and hide them from my wife. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc.(Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at