Info appliances plug in

The new favorite of corporate IT departments is the "set-it-and-forget-it" information appliance—a specialized server that performs just one function but does it very well.The deployment across the enterprise landscape of appliances that perform as storage-, database-, e-mail- or Web-only servers is driven by both customer and vendor needs.

The new favorite of corporate IT departments is the "set-it-and-forget-it" information appliance—a specialized server that performs just one function but does it very well.

The deployment across the enterprise landscape of appliances that perform as storage-, database-, e-mail- or Web-only servers is driven by both customer and vendor needs. Vendors want more control over the environments in which their applications run, and customers appreciate a box that takes about as much work to set up as a coffee maker and begins to work as soon as it's plugged in.

The Web-ification of the world, combined with the advent of the ASP (application service provider), has heated up the market at both the high and low ends for the single-minded device that's optimized for Web transactions. However, the proprietary nature of these appliances can cause headaches. Their software hasn't been subjected to the broad testing that takes place on general-purpose platforms, and their management tools can't typically integrate into widely used enterprise systems.

Until recently, information appliances were mostly small, workgroup-type devices. In PC Week Labs' tests, devices such as Meridian Data Inc.'s Snap Server NAS (network-attached storage) device, which we reviewed Sept. 6 withother low-end NAS offerings, and Cobalt Networks Inc.'s Qube Internet appliance, which we reviewed Feb. 22, showed they can serve the small-business market well by making file and Web servers as easy to set up and configure as possible. The fact that they were pretty inexpensive didn't hurt, either.

New information appliances are aimed at the high end with large, complex applications such as Oracle Corp.'s Oracle8i and with Mirapoint Inc.'s IMAP (Internet Messaging Application Protocol) and SMTP e-mail appliances. Even the lowly job of serving files has been elevated to enterprise status with $100,000-plus devices, such as Network Appliance Inc.'s F760 Filer.

What's in it for vendors?

By putting their software on an appliance, vendors know exactly what type of hardware and software the device is integrating, which enables them to better support the software. A perfect example of this is Oracle's raw iron initiative. Most companies run only the database application on their database servers. Realizing this, Oracle partnered with Sun Microsystems Inc. in recent months to strip down the Solaris kernel and integrate it withOracle8i.

Customers receive a box that begins to work as soon as they plug it into their networks. This takes one of the most complex and painfulareas of databases—their installation and configuration—out of the equation. Enterprise administrators benefit from lower administration costs and can gain more uptime because extraneous software components that could negatively impact the database are eliminated.

The Oracle idea is one that we'll probably see more often. Seldom are enterprise applications installed along with other applications on a server. Usually, a server is designated for a particular application, such as SAP AG R/3 or Microsoft Corp. Exchange. The natural progression of this is that we will see specialized servers that are optimized for specific applications. Some servers may have beefier storage subsystems, while others may have a lot of memory bandwidth.

However, most of these systems will be called appliances only for a short time. Vendors are simply using a multipurpose computer for a single task. For a look atappliance-building software that letsfirms take a different tack and construct information appliances from PC components with the help—and not the hindrances—of Linux, see the review of NetMax Professional above.

True appliances, such as Network Appliance's F760, on the other hand, use a specialized and often proprietary component to aid in their single tasks. For Network Appliance, that component is the WAFL (write anywhere file layout) file system, which allows the F760 to write to disk faster than most traditional operating systems. The WAFL technology gives the company's appliances an edge over other multipurpose computers. In fact, in tests for our review of the F760 last fall, it was one of the fastest file servers we had ever seen.

Even more important, installing the F760 was shockingly simple. The file server appliance's entire operating system fit on a floppy disk, and getting it on our test network took less than 2 minutes.

Enterprise concerns loom

Enterprise administrators can expect information appliances to help them accomplish their jobs in a much easier and less costly fashion.

For instance, one of the most difficult applications to configure is e-mail, which is based on a conglomeration of standards, including Post Office Protocol, IMAP, SMTP and possibly Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. For companies with many, many e-mail servers, just setting up and deploying these servers can become time- and money-consuming. Mira point solves this problem with its just-released e-mail appliance, which simply plugs in and, with little configuration, begins forwarding mail.

Although cost and manageability are the driving forces behind the popularity of appliances today, scalability will also begin to enter the picture. This will mimic what has been happening in other markets, such as the remote access server space. These devices were first built by placing modems in computers, but the servers eventually grew to be behemoth devices, using specialized hardware and able to handle thousands of calls while taking up a small amount of space.

Most new applications today are Web applications, and ASPs willing to host a company's Web operations find themselves in a growth industry. With those trends in mind, it makes perfect sense to design servers for the specific purpose of Web serving. Companies including IBM and Cobalt are supplying Web server appliances that are 1 or 2 inches high and can service hundreds of concurrent users. In a co-location environment, the space saved by these appliances can translate directly into dollars saved.

However, because of the often proprietary nature of appliances, problems can arise in other areas. For instance, the selection of backup software for Network Appliance's boxes is nowhere near as abundant as it is for Windows NT or Solaris devices.

Unifying management of these devices will not be easy. Most of them cannot integrate into enterprise management systems such as Tivoli Systems Inc.'s TME or Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter, leaving administrators able to manage only one appliance at a time.

Appliance vendors will argue that their devices are so easy to manage that enterprise management systems will no longer be necessary. However, this is really just delaying the inevitable. The devices will have to support enterprise management standards such as Web Enterprise Based Management, Wired for Management and SNMP Version 3. Users of appliances may also use some of the upgradability of general-purpose computers.

Pankaj Chowdhry, West Coast technical director of PC Week Labs, can be contacted at pankaj_chowdhry@zd.com.

More about appliances

For some of PC Week Labs' reviews of appliances in the past year, both for the low and high end, check these out:

Sept. 6 review of three NAS devices for the low end: www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,2327158,00.html

July 12 review of Cobalt's NASRaQ NAS device: www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,409206,00.html

Feb. 22 review of Cobalt's Qube Internet appliance: www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,390961,00.html

Oct. 19, 1998, review of Network Appliance's F760 Filer: www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,360941,00.html

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