Forget the killer application. IBM is working on a killer appliance which, if it goes into production, will be targeted at the market currently dominated by Sun Cobalt Raq servers -- pizza box-shaped servers that are popular with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) because of their small size and easy manageability.
Although Sun Cobalt Raq servers are sold mainly to ISPs, they have achieved widespread recognition because many ISPs rent or sell them on to customers who want a (relatively) cheap, easy-to-manage, platform for their Web sites.
Even many individuals and small businesses that buy Web space find themselves using the Cobalt Raq Web interface to manage their Web sites. If IBM's prototype reaches fruition, users could find themselves able to switch on advanced applications such as streaming media servers, auction software and SSL and credit-card processing utilities at the click of a button.
IBM's prototype is based on the company's xSeries servers. Like Cobalt Raqs, these xSeries servers are very thin so they can be stacked 20 high in space-constrained ISPs, but they are about twice as deep. IBM is hoping that despite the extra depth, ISPs and users will be attracted by the management interface, which it says is significantly easier than the Cobalt Raq's interface for setting up Web sites.
For the management interface, IBM is turning to the relative newcomer Sphera for its HostingDirector software. HostingDirector runs on and manages Solaris, Linux and Windows 2000 servers, but IBM's prototype runs the Linux version on Red Hat 7.2.
Like the Cobalt Raq Web-based management interface, HostingDirector allows administrators to set up multiple virtual servers on a single machine. But, said Sphera senior sales engineer Alex Chatila, it allows many more type of Web server to be created much more easily than is possible on a Raq.
"The Cobalt Raq provides out-of-the-box solutions," he said. "But we provide out-of-the-box solutions that are fully automated. Appliance servers are all about getting a Web site set up quickly on the server, but with current appliances you need to create new accounts manually, set up databases manually, and you need someone who knows Linux well if you want to set up an e-commerce site."
HostingDirector has over 40 applications that can be enabled with the click of a mouse button, added Chatila. Applications include Real Server streaming media server, EveryAuction and SSL and credit-card processing utilities, as well as basic applications supplied on Raqs such as email, MySQL and PHP support.
Lars Ottersgaard, appliance server sales manager for IBM in Europe, stressed that the project is still only a prototype. IBM and Sphera are already collaborating on sales with the IBM/Sphera HostingDirector Solution under IBM's Blue Velocity programme, said Ottersgaard.
But this is a loose alliance with each sale involving a salesperson from each company, he added, and the software supplied separately from the server. If the prototype appliance goes into production, there would be one point of sale and the server would come with the software installed and ready to run.
Matt Loney reported from ISPCON Europe 2002 in London.