Who does client-server serve?

Who does client-server serve?

Summary: On the surface one of the oddest things about a large client-server operation that grew from an earlier 327X style system is that they didn't meet their SLA terms then, and don't now - but the bigger question is what the transition achieved and for whom?

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This government organization has about 2,400 PCs. All are under an out-sourced evergreen agreement that includes a two year refresh cycle, so about a third, mostly in managerial offices, are now on Windows 7 and the remainder are scheduled to go that way by the middle of the next fiscal year. In addition they have a highly virtualized data center with about 160 real x86 boxes (most running multiple Windows Server and application instances under VMware), along with the usual shared data stores and absolutely centralized networking connection to the rest of the world.

Look at them in terms of industry norms, and they look pretty good: professionally run, significant system wide redundancy; active PC security group; near parallel off site backups; solid evergreen, communication, and usage policies in place; and even some decent third party career management services for IT employees.

The history here is that this organization launched, in about 1985, an effort to update its systems (then built around the 327X/3096 architecture), experimented briefly with both WANG and DEC as suppliers, and had, by the time the 91/92 fiscal year rolled around, settled on the client-server architecture recommended by their current out-sourced services supplier. Since then they've gone from 11 IT staff to about 80, from betting on OS2 to Windows 7, from megabytes to terabytes, and from rigidly limited systems and data access to a claimed information ubiquity.

In reality, however, the IT implementation has changed from 327X/3096 to Wintel client-server but the organizational structure, access controls and underlying work processes have survived with little, if any, significant change since the 1960s. Thus information is still rigidly compartmentalized: clerks entering one kind of data cannot see other relevant data; the front line people cannot get access to either the detailed institution reports or the operational cockpit data available to a handful of senior people; the people screening applications exchange paper with the people doing enforcement monitoring; and so on.

I'm told that IT people working with senior management have tried to address some or all of this at various times through initiatives like a MOM project and an organization wide Notes implementation, but the claim is that work to rule responses from middle management effectively gutted the amazing technical success each such project achieves on the resumes of those involved.

Thus the bottom line here is, I think, that what they have now is a high cost implementation of the 327X/3096 architecture they sought to replace in 1985 - and that raises the question: had they lived in some alternative universe and gone to SunOS with NCD X-terms and some Apple laptops in 1988 or 89 where would they be now?

The answer, I think, is that they'd now have evolved to Solaris, Sun Rays, and iDevices; they'd still have about 11 staff and no out-sourcer; and their history in between would included far easier access to more software with fewer failures and security risks -meaning that the impact of IT limitations, costs, and assumptions on their organizational evolution would have been both vastly smaller in absolute terms and generally more positive than negative.

How those differences would be expressed is obviously a matter for speculation since the only organization I'm familiar with that actually made that choice more than twenty years ago is a high security operation subject to radically different organizational pressures - but I believe the direction and rough extent of those differences can be assessed by asking one question: where in the 20+ years of system evolution between that 1989/90 choice and today is the client-server advantage to the organization? What, in other words, does or did the existing choice make possible that otherwise would not have been?

The most important place it's not is in the devolution of IT control to user management: in more than twenty years it not only hasn't happened, but centralized control has actually been strengthened over the period with the reaction to server growth and document loss during the NT years having led to centralized document management, centralized standards enforcement, and a complete loss of communications autonomy by unit management.

In contrast, the benefits to IT are obvious: more staff, more money, and the ability to play to common perceptions about wintel to absolve themselves of responsibility for performance, security, and continuity.

So what, bottom line, did the organization get for making the client-server decision? I'd argue that they got more IT costs, more leaks, tighter central control, less user accessible software, reduced performance, and a long detour to nowhere.

Topics: Servers, CXO, Hardware, Security

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27 comments
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  • RE: Who does client-server serve?

    While Solaris is good and SunRays capable but those r very expensive solution

    The cheapper alternative is still Wintel. You can even use Win7 as the base server by using ThinServer software

    http://www.aikotech.com/thinserver.htm
    bojanwojan
    • RE: Who does client-server serve?

      @bojanwojan: They are indeed pricey, but the upside is, you don't have to buy so many of them to get the same job done. ;)
      Random_Walk
      • Quite right

        @Random_Walk
        You can use far fewer people and Windows boxes to get the same job accomplished.
        It is the reason almost everyone uses them.
        mdemuth
      • You must be new around here

        @mdemuth
        [You can use far fewer people and Windows boxes to get the same job accomplished.
        It is the reason almost everyone uses them.]

        Do you have any experience with non-win IT? Your flippant statement seems to show some ignorance.
        Roger Ramjet
      • RE: Who does client-server serve?

        @Roger Ramjet: I do - through observation -
        3 SunSolaris/Unix Admins. 1 Windows Server Admin. Win servers are all Vitalized, and we have 1 admin for the boxes. The SunSolaris team is made up of 3. Not sure if that is what you are looking for. We cut that down as well with recent layoffs and restructuring of the infrastructure teams
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Who does client-server serve?

        @ItsTheBottomLine
        A decent UNIX sysadmin can handle hundreds of boxes (Virtual or otherwise). Having a single point of failure (including a single human) is never advisable. Therefore you need at least 2 admins.

        As for Windoze - I doubt that same truism holds. Do you have some other information about this?
        Roger Ramjet
      • RE: Who does client-server serve?

        @mdemuth: "You can use far fewer people and Windows boxes to get the same job accomplished."

        Proof, please (no, not anecdotal, but verifiable fact).

        Also, the phrase "almost everyone" is a misnomer, and usually trotted out in terms of sales revenue, not as actual usage/counts. See also Netcraft's public server stats if you want a good, hard dose of reality. ;)
        Random_Walk
  • software, software, software

    I really doesn't matter what client or server you use. There's no inherent difference between a x86 infrastructure and a sun ray infrastructure. Put the sun os on the whole x86 shebang and suddenly the skies would open, and god would come forth??
    I don't think so. Sun offered solaris for free, and didn't get any traction.(well maybe a little) They really have a huge choice for server options, and powerful x64 machines are all over the place for java to run on. (they couldn't even change the branding without breaking stuff on java).

    A cohesive software suite that could run on any machine set, and eliminates the need for specific hardware (any more than perhaps some pci card) is where sun needed to go long ago. Solaris is nice, I drove it, but it didn't like my machine so much. As for Sun apps, I just don't know them that well.

    A server is just a server.
    sparkle farkle
    • open office rocks

      oh yeah, I do know a bit of their software
      sparkle farkle
      • It would have rocked in 1997

        @sparkle farkle

        But now it's just an almost clone of MS Office 97. Never mind, it's a good safety net, but it sure ain't rocking in 2010 ;-)
        tonymcs@...
    • hardware is just hardware

      @sparkle farkle

      The differences are in how the architecture drives management decisions and thus organizational posture, not the specific performance or cost of the boxes.

      Had they gone SunOS/NCD they'd have never have needed more than about five servers (instead of the 160+ they have now), the whole help desk thing would not have been needed (and the organizational accommodations to it would not have happened), the document/security issues driving increasing centralized control would not have arisen, and so on and so on...
      murph_z
      • Ah, Sapir-Whorff revisited

        @murph_z The language affects the thinking - or in this case the infrastructure affects the thinking. Interesting theory . . .
        Roger Ramjet
      • so why cant solaris run on the existing infrastructure?

        that's the point here. If it really would make a difference,and it is what you say, why hasn't Sun come up with the option?(of putting their software on any machine)
        sparkle farkle
      • RE: Who does client-server serve?

        @murph_z: Not sure our management would agree with that large assumption based on the real world here. Sun has some issues both software and $'s... at least here the do.
        ItsTheBottomLine
  • You are a broken record.

    Solaris is the solution to all problems.

    Grow up.
    cornpie
  • Boy, you really missed this one...

    Management, middle management in this case want to keep all the walls in place. Then you say that if they went with Solaris everything would be open. How is going with Solaris over Windows going to change middle management's attitudes??

    You're usually way off base, but this is ridiculous, even for you.
    aureolin
    • Technology solution wont solve organizational dysfunction

      @aureolin Murph's broken record is skipping again as I pointed out above. I've been through so many of these transitions that my brain is numb. It always boils down to managers who are fearful of change and pass that fear along to their subordinates. This is really completely independent of what the underlying technology is so to say that any particular technology is the solution to everything is just ignorance talking.

      The other thing to consider is the "so what" factor. Murph sates "had they lived in some alternative universe and gone to SunOS". Well, OK, supposing we accept that as unchallenged fact. We would still have to accept the fact that we do not live in said "alternate universe". The question of what we should have done way back when is irrelevant other than as a history lesson. History lessons do have value but the question we really need to consider is "where do we go from here" not "where should we have gone years ago". Of course Murph's broken record will keep skipping to that question too: Solaris...skip....Solaris...skip....solaris...
      cornpie
    • RE: Who does client-server serve?

      @aureolin

      By itself solaris vs windows should have no effect - however we're talking here about how IT architecture affects management. Would DP management have wanted to keep the walls in place if they'd gone Sun/NCD? Possibly - but in general people who know enough to change to network computing also have user centric attitudes and those attitudes can find positive expression using this architecture where the wintel client-server approach prevents even those who want to do the right thing from doing it.

      Thus we cannot know what would have happened, but do know that what did happen was influenced by IT choices favoring centralized control and institutionalized failure to support (or even care about) user needs.
      murph_z
      • RE: Who does client-server serve?

        @murph_z Murph, I've been following your posts on an off for about two years now, and from what I gather what seems to be the basis of your rantings is the direction IT took as a whole in the last 25 years, which basically saw the downfall of the terminal-mainframe infrastructure that ran on Unix, governed by the iron fist of the geeks, who called the shots simply because the whole thing was murderously complex for anyone else to comprehend. Back then ordinary people used computers to do work - and only work. For everything else, they resorted to appliances: TVs, stereos, walkmen, VCRs, phones, pagers, Famicom/NES type consoles, whatnot. That also explains why you're so besotted by the iDevices and the cloud craze - they represent an amalgamation of the appliances of the past. You hope that they will keep idiots away from "workstations" and maybe - just maybe - computers will be computers again, and so will the IT once again become the almighty geekdom it once has been.

        Now, before you snap and call me an uninformed idiot or something, let me tell you that I don't have a problem with your points at all. I just find them somewhat... nostalgic. Yet that makes for very interesting reading and that's why I now present an honest question:

        The move towards iDevices, apps and the cloud that will hopefully put an end to the prost... umm, commoditization of the workstation and will bring back the good old days is driven by a popular demand to access rich interactive, social multimedia content. On that I hope we have an agreement. But, that demand itself rooted out from the penetration of collaborative infrastructure among ordinary users in the form of Web 1.0-1.5 services, and the general availability of user-friendly content creation tools, and that was made possible by the commoditization of the workstation in the form of the x86 PC as a cost-cutting measure for the enterprise, spearheaded by Intel, Microsoft and various OEMs of the '90s.

        Now, if the enterprise did act on your way of thinking and stick with thin clients and Unix mainframes, hence x86 had never materialized, which of the following "alternate histories" do you think would have come true?

        1. One in which the commoditization never occured, where the appliances (TVs, VCRs, consoles, etc.) were forced to evolve without the EoS benefits of workstation commoditization, thereby becoming morbidly expensive but slightly more capable (in order to remedy the absence of syncing) versions of their present-day counterparts.

        2. One in which global economic conditions and human nature prevailed and we went on to commoditize some other platform, e.g. SPARC/Solaris and have come full circle - and you ended up praising Wintel (gasp!)
        Stormbringer_57th
      • answering stormbringer

        Had big business gone Unix early on (as they're doing now) there's no reason to believe consumer electronics would have been forced into a significantly different mold.

        On the contrary both Sun and Apple produced early (circa 1991) versions of today's smart phones that weren't marketable because the PC people had effectively prevented the necessary consumer education and networking infrastructure.

        Similarly today's Windows GUIs all have predecessors going back 20+ years - all slowed due to the PC - remember when DOS uses claimed no one would want GUIs? and then that no one would want multi-tasking?and then that no one would play movies on computers? etc etc etc?

        Looking back, there's really nothing ''enabled" by the PC that the PC crowd didn't first refuse to accept when offered by someone else.
        murph_z