W2K Appliance Server Kits: Too Little Too Late?

Since Microsoft Corp. pulled the plug on plans for Windows 2000 Embedded in May, OEMs have been waiting for a W2K Server Appliance Kit to streamline servers for specific needs.

The wait will soon be over. The kit is in beta testing with certain OEMs and should be available for sale later this fiscal quarter. But some industry observers wonder if Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) has taken the "appliance" out of server appliance.

"It’s interesting that this server appliance allows you to turn off functions rather than remove them," says Dan Kusnetzky, program vice president, system software, at IDC (www.idc.com). "You’d think many companies interested in server appliances would be looking at saving every dollar. Yet this appliance potentially will require storage space and memory use that’s larger than its competitors. Why use an operating system server appliance with fixed functions that people wouldn’t be programming for? Why would they use a platform that would increase costs [over one that removes features]?"

Kusnetzky believes he knows why. There is nowhere else to go to run Win32 applications. No other company has phased in that interface to date. And a lot of systems managers are more comfortable maintaining the compatibility of the Windows family.

But Kusnetzky sees no clear advantage of Microsoft's appliance when it comes to serving the Web, file and print, routing, messaging, caching, or firewalls -- all of which Microsoft's competitors could address just as well while enabling the removal of functions.

Companies such as Red Hat, the highest profile Linux distributor, won’t charge at all for an appliance server application with a wide array of features. Its plan is for clients to sign a service agreement to support it. Red Hat, of course, open sources its application codes at no charge to expand service opportunities, regardless if that code is applied to two or 200 servers.

"It’s awfully tough to compete with free," Kusnetzky says. "But Microsoft’s way is to present an interim product like this as an entry to market, let people beat up on it, and then improve upon it two years later. It’s safe to say we’ll see future versions that are highly customizable."

Deanne Hoppe, lead product manager for the embedded and appliance platforms group at Microsoft, doesn’t see function removal as a major issue.

"[The Windows 20000 Server Appliance Kit] allows OEMs to determine specific features needed for that server appliance and to turn off features that don’t apply to the solution -- thus the full footprint remains," Hoppe says. "For most server appliances, footprint is not as important as performance. But for those that have a footprint requirement, we have other options."

Hoppe says OEMs might choose Windows NT Embedded 4.0 for solutions requiring full Win32 APIs and using X86 and PC architecture. Another option is Windows CE 3.0, with a granular componentization for small-footprint and low-memory issues.

"The Server Appliance Kit is not an embedded operating system, but rather an add-on designed to facilitate OEMs and hardware vendors to quickly build Windows-powered server appliances," Hoppe says. The kit also furnishes additional components that otherwise would need to be purchased elsewhere or be customized by an in-house engineer, Hoppe says.

That’s the advantage the kit has over the Windows 2000 appliance servers released by Dell Computer Corp. (www.dell.com) and IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com) in April, according to Hoppe.

"Our announcements earlier this year with IBM and Dell focused specifically on Web server appliances powered by Windows," Hoppe explains. "We incorporated the knowledge gained from the work we did with IBM and Dell to deliver the Server Appliance Kit more broadly. The Server Appliance Kit helps OEMs to quickly build not only Web servers, but network-attached storage appliances, small business server appliances, and networked backup and recovery appliances."

Kusnetzky wonders if the limitations of this release will prove costly to Microsoft, once other companies can catch up with their own versions with Win32 solutions.

"You have to wonder if the choice to bring it to the market quickly will hamper the success of the product in the long term," Kusnetzky says. "If this solution doesn’t answer all the questions now, how will it affect the response to future versions?"