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The Rise of Application-Specific Servers

By George Weiss

With the trends toward client/server computing, distributed server deployment, high levels of scalability and high availability, the application environment is spawning greater complexity. Meanwhile, modular hardware and software now make it easier to mix and match components to suit a broad set of application requirements in both the Intel and RISC Unix worlds. Amid these contrasting trends arises the question of how specialized a server must be. The argument favoring general-purpose business servers notes that interfaces are open, technology advances have been rapid and ease of use is improving. These hardware- and OS-independent servers are gaining considerable credibility.

However, an important countervailing trend is emerging: the application-specific server platform (ASSP). This kind of platform can offer specific hardware, software, service and integration that on a general-purpose equivalent would require specially integrated functionality and expertise for specific applications.

The ASSP is selectively architected to be an optimized resource for specific application environments. It may use specifically integrated components and software to satisfy industry requirements, such as those in the retail, banking or brokerage industries. It cannot be fully configured from standard hardware and software components, although many of its underlying components may nevertheless be generic or commodity components.

For the vendor, a successful ASSP strategy, in contrast to planning for basic business servers, requires greater attention to sales, marketing, service and support, with integration and operational ease of use as critical differentiators. Examples of these servers are now appearing in popular application areas such as electronic commerce and other Internet use; NFS file servers; firewall data security and integrity; and data warehouse and mining. Of course, computationally specific servers with parallel processing architectures have existed for years.

Users must determine whether their future server needs will be met largely by basic business servers or will require the higher degree of specialization of an ASSP strategy. If an ASSP is warranted, users must evaluate vendor and server viability differently from generic approaches. Hasty product entries that lack market justification, channel development, strong product differentiation, and dedicated support and integration resources can easily backfire. The vendor may have a well-established server product line, or it may be a startup hoping to capitalize on market opportunities against established vendors seen as too sluggish in reacting to opportunity or discounting a niche market to avoid diluting resources. The user is therefore placed in a magnetic field in which one pole has an extremely attractive force toward engagement while the other may as powerfully repel.

Weighing the Options

The potential adopter's evaluation process should focus on the following four criteria.

Strong hardware and software integration. For example, a customer call management solution might package high-availability hardware redundancy with automated fail-over administration, integration of voice processing and PBX switches, and customer service workstations with a variety of other peripherals for fax, voice response and imaging.

Significant server differentiation. To optimize the performance of the application, the server may require faster and many more I/O pipes with a wide channel bandwidth designed to minimize system latency by curbing CPU cycles during I/O.

Selective and specialized distribution channels. The more specialized the market, the greater the importance of having a well-balanced, established value-added channel to serve it.

Specific business unit resources. Willingness to invest the necessary resources in development and marketing through a separate business unit is a measure of the vendor's commitment to serious customer engagement and future dependability.

Thus far, few vendors have marketed systems with an ASSP focus. The likely reason is the added complexity in pre-configuration order fulfillment, special third-party channel relationships and added development expense and expertise of increased functional specialization.

Because ASSPs may employ hardware and software dependencies, users must exercise added caution prior to engagement. It is wise to look for a vendor ASSP strategy that exploits common components, modular middleware and third-party channels, while improving server differentiation beyond the appearances of brand labeling and a bundling exercise. Vendors must demonstrate steady long-term commitment, ensure that performance improvements keep up with continuing growth requirements, and ensure that the solution's value is greater than the sum of its parts.

IS Involvement

As beneficial as ASSPs can be for users, they may cause data and network management problems for the IS organization. Unusual configurations, components, tuning and integration with application software all make ASSPs both unique and more problematic to diagnose and maintain than more generic servers. Thus, effective implementation, integration and management of ASSPs are problems that must be overcome by the IS organization.

Business unit ASSPs fit the needs of the user department best, but they should be forced, whenever possible, to depend on a base level of commonality, or islands of automation will appear once more. Greater commonality is now possible between servers because of fewer Unix variants, consolidation of server vendors, greater use of common protocols and the strength of Intel as a common semiconductor architecture across many suppliers.

Business units are support-intensive in comparison to the IS organization. Therefore, minimizing support costs is essential when implementing an ASSP outside the IS organization's control. Likewise, IS skills are limited within business units. Within the IS organization, the breadth and flexibility of skills enable IS employees to adapt quickly to new platforms, components and applications, but business unit employees cannot adapt as easily. They are more skilled in the specific functions within the applications they use on a day-to-day basis, such as accounting, legislation, sales practices, marketing analysis, personnel and tax requirements.

As client/server implementations have matured, the lure of the cheapest, most generic solution is waning. The ASSP, if adopted with suitable caution, offers a further evolution in the architecture.

George Weiss is vice president and research director for distributed computing platforms at the Gartner Group in Stamford, CT.

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