Have server appliances failed to fulfil their promise?

Matt Loney: If there's one thing you can rely on analysts to do, it's to over-hype The Next Big Thing.

For analysts, the temptation to hype is fuelled by the rewards; there are research papers to be sold -- have you ever checked the prices of these things? -- and conferences, all built on the back of the latest buzz-word. If you've ever been to a conference on ASPs, you'll know what I mean; a conference full of vendors and analysts but not a customer in sight.

Server appliances have received their fair share of hype, and while they have lived up to it slightly better than have the ASPs, the hype was definitely there, and it was overdone. Sun's launch this week of a low-cost, general-purpose Linux server proves it. Three years ago, at the Cobalt developer conference in Amsterdam, the upstart server manufacturer -- soon to be acquired by Sun Microsystems for a modest $2bn -- revealed the future: a tall, cool blue dispensing machine. It wasn't really a dispensing machine, but it got the idea across faster than you can say "out of Fanta". The idea, which was pioneered by Cobalt and quickly picked up by other industry giants, was the server appliance; a server built to do one job and one job only.

Cobalt's Raq appliance had an operating system, but this was pared down and hidden behind a Web-based graphical interface. In theory, you could do everything you needed to do to run the server, set up Web sites, email addresses and even DNS configuration, with the click of a mouse. In practice, most Raq administrators still today have to telnet in to make it work quite as it should, but we'll ignore that.

For the most part, Cobalt's Raq appliances worked, and at the conference there was talk of a future where we would never again have to install an application and fiddle around securing an operating system. Instead, we were told, we would buy one appliance with one application to do one job. Want a Web site? Buy a Web appliance (which the Raq was). Want a cache? Buy a cache appliance. Want a database? Buy a database appliance.

It was -- and still is -- a compelling idea. Even Oracle got sucked in to the extent that it spent several gazillion dollars working with one Sun Microsystems on its "Raw Iron" database appliance, while Dell, HP and Compaq jostled to launch the hardware first. Eurostar bought two and seemed happy with them -- although the firm's system administrators had to get used to having no command line interface. (You'd think a graphical user interface would be easy but, it seems, that is not always the case.)

But, if you want to buy an Oracle Appliance server today, you'll have to go to Dell; Oracle, which used to offer a route to buying them through its online store, no longer does so. HP and Fujitsu-Siemens both appear to have discontinued the appliances -- if not, they are hiding them very effectively.

Oracle and Cobalt (and the analysts) alike saw a future where all the applications in the datacentre would be supplied on appliances. Yes, and we'll all be accessing our desktop applications through a Web browser. Indeed, server appliances have hit the big time on the edge of the network -- Web servers, email servers, VPNs, firewalls and even storage appliances are selling well. But where are the application server appliances?

Of all server makers, Sun might reasonably be expected to be leading the way here; after all, the Oracle Raw Iron appliance was built on a Solaris kernel, and Sun's acquisition of Cobalt shows how seriously it perceived the threat to its general purpose server business from low cost appliances.

If server appliances still had the future that they were thought to have several years ago, the LX50 would be one. Indeed, sources close to Cobalt suggest that the LX50 would originally be the next, high-powered Cobalt appliance. As evidence I submit the Cobalt logo set in the top left corner of the Cobalt-blue fascia. The subtle message is that Cobalt is slowly becoming more absorbed into Sun, and higher end Cobalt servers will not be appliances.

Plans to port the Sun ONE software stack to the LX50's Sun Linux 5.0 (aka Red Hat Linux 7.2) operating system would have provided a perfect opportunity to launch a whole new range of server appliances, but it's not happening. The future envisioned by the Cobalt of old has not transpired. Now, when we see a Sun ONE Star Office appliance, which allows us to access the application through a browser -- then I shall be convinced.

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