What a difference a few years make. Walking the aisles of Comdex in the ’90s meant being assailed by a barrage of the latest and greatest in hardware — servers, disk arrays, switches, routers and storage devices.
This year, enterprise-class hardware was hard to find. Servers, in particular, could well be candidates for the endangered species list if the industry’s biggest show is anything to go by.
Instead, Microsoft captured the attention of enterprise buyers. The upcoming release of .NET Server 2003 largely dominated the server landscape at Comdex, though SuSE deserves an honorable mention for their efforts to get out the word on the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.
Hard Days for Hardware
While consumer electronics devices account for more Comdex real estate than ever, enterprise vendors are still turning up in volume. What has changed, though, is that the hardware vendors (outside of component companies which are now grouped in one corner) are staying away, leaving the floor to software and consumer tools. This changing of the guard is quickly apparent when you work the floor looking for news on the server hardware front. A quick glance at the Exhibition Guide revealed that server hardware specialists such as Unisys and Fujitsu-Siemens hadn’t even bothered to show up. IBM’s presence turned out to be a 3-foot-wide bench with one rep touting WLAN products.
“I’m IBM at Comdex,” he said.
What about Dell? The Dell consumer PC booth stayed busy, but rumor has it that Dell’s commercial booth packed up and left Vegas on the morning of the show’s second day. According to the cab driver, Dell’s corporate reps complained about wasting $250,000 on the booth as they headed back to Texas. Fortunately, Sun and HP continued to fly the hardware flag, promoting new products, server enhancements and their best selling lines.
Sun stood out as the only vendor giving prominence to server hardware. Sun Fire models on display included the V880, V480, 280R and a few other monsters. Demos focused on the V880 and V 480, along with the recently released Solaris 9 OS that speeds throughput by improving CPU access to memory resources. Perhaps as a sign of the times, though, the company didn’t synchronize upcoming server releases with Comdex. Case in point: a general purpose dual-processor blade server from Sun will come out next month targeted at the Web server market.
While Sun used hardware to draw attention, HP’s booth focused on consumer gadgetry and end-user products. Behind the veneer, though, the company devoted plenty of resources to its server line. Tim Golden, HP’s directory of industry standard servers, stressed the success of the ProLiant DL380 server (75,000 unit sales last quarter). HP has just revamped this 2-way machine without changing its 2U (3.5 inch) form factor. It has been upgraded with Intel Xeon processors and up to 6GB (with 2GB DIMMs) of 2-way interleaved 200MHz DDR SDRAM. According to Golden, 8 GB of memory will be available by the end of the year.
He also talked up the company’s 64-bit hardware offerings, though stressed that the industry wasn’t quite ready for these machines.
“The third generation Itanium processor certainly provides enough scalability to really capitalize on the 64-bit architecture,” said Golden. “But the lack of applications currently available means it will probably be three to five years before 64-bit replaces 32-bit hardware.”
In stark contrast to the low-key status of server hardware, server software stood front and center at Comdex. Microsoft .NET Server 2003 all but dominated the show. Banners for Microsoft’s newest enterprise operating system were everywhere and the Microsoft booth devoted about an acre to .NET Server 2003 with slick demos, briefings and even a movie modeled after the CSI TV show.
According to Bob O’Brien, product manager of the Windows server division, the OS can run up to 64 CPUs and outdoes Windows 2000 Server in tests: 98% faster as a file server, 300% faster in Active Directory (AD) searches and 90% faster as a Web server. Already, Release Candidate 1 (RC1) has attracted 350,000 users and RC2 is due out within days. The final version is expected in April. Similar to Windows 2000 Server, the .NET Server line will have several versions for web server, standard, enterprise and data center.
Susan Huber of the server division demonstrated ease-of-management features. On NT, for instance, it could be quite complex to manage passwords in a large site, necessitating a multitude of complex registry and directory tasks. On .NET Server 2003 she accomplished some basic password management tasks within Active Directory within a few seconds.
“.NET Server 2003 comes with over 200 pre-set group policies to simplify management,” said Huber.
Another demo showcased Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS), a feature receiving attention as part of the Windows .NET Server 2003 release. VSS enables multi-platform interoperation and cooperation between storage hardware, storage software and business applications. It lets vendors plug in snapshot, clone, and data replication solutions as well as allowing integration with other applications.
While VSS speeds the backup and restore process, its main benefit appears to be to reduce help desk traffic. Instead of bothering the system admin for assistance in the case of a lost or accidentally deleted file, VSS allows the user to find Shadow copies of files and restore them rapidly.
One big potential downside of VSS though, is fragmentation. John Kimmich, Diskeeper product manager for Executive Software, showed me a heavily fragmented volume running .NET Server 2003. After pointing out that this newly loaded volume had 62 percent free space, a report indicated that 9836 files were badly fragmented. Another volume was in even worse condition due to VSS, he said.
“While all Windows operating systems require regular defragmentation, this appears to be especially true of .NET Server 2003,” said Kimmich. “Snapshots or Shadow copies result in the creation of thousands of small and temporary files and this severely fragments servers and workstations within a very short time indeed.”
So if you are thinking of deploying this new server OS, be sure to take into account the need to include defragmentation software on all machines in order to maintain system stability and performance.
End of Days?
On the way to Comdex, doom and gloom seemed to be the order of the day. The cab driver bemoaned the poor attendance and used Dell’s “Escape to Texas” to illustrate how bad it all was. In the same cab sat a rep from show owner Key3Media complaining about his company’s bankruptcy and the fact that Comdex may be sliced up to separate out the consumer side from the enterprise side.
Yet the show itself was probably the best in years. Instead of being assailed on all sides by gimmickry and .com hype, this Comdex seemed to represent a return to sanity. Vendor reps repeatedly commented that the quality of attendee seemed better than in recent history.
“The tire kickers are gone and we have more leads than in previous years,” said Mark Dunton of network management vendor Somix Technologies.