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Big shots promote clustering

A new specification backed by Intel, Microsoft, and Compaq promises to make it easier to set up clustered servers.

The heavyweights in the PC industry are now promising to make it easier to implement clustered servers, a kind of server set-up that promises to never let the network down.

Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), and Compaq Computer (CPQ) hope to capitalize on the industry buzz surrounding clustering, which offers a level of reliability that is fast becoming a requirement for heavy-duty Internet and intranet applications.

Clustering, pioneered by Digital Equipment in the '80s, ties several servers together so that they all work together as one. This increases the horsepower of the server and provides what is called "fail-over," that is, if a primary server fails, the application will move over to the next available server instead of crashing.

Unix vendors are generally thought to offer more advanced clustering capabilities than their PC competitors, but manufacturers of Intel-based servers are starting to catch up. These makers of PC servers now can point their customers to new PC clustering technologies, such as Wolfpack from Microsoft or rewrites of Unix software for Intel-based boxes, such as Tandem Computers' high-speed ServerNet interconnect scheme.

The new Virtual Interface (VI) Architecture specification announced today provides a standard method for applications to communicate with each other over clustered servers that conform to the specification. In other words, any application written to the VI architecture can work with any VI-enabled interconnect.

Until now, Intel-based server and software vendors focused primarily on fail-over capabilities; that is, a system with one primary server and a back-up server. What the new specification is intended to bring about is the proliferation of real clusters with several servers bound together by multiple high-speed interconnects.

Most applications and operating systems, especially Unix-based software, include drivers tied to specific hardware for clustered systems. Thus, an IBM DB2 database with parallel capabilities may work with RS 6000 servers and proprietary IBM interconnects, but it cannot work with other servers or network interfaces. If the VI architecture is widely adopted, then corporate customers will be able to pick and choose from a longer list of hardware vendors.

Most database vendors already are written to run on clustered servers but if clusters of Intel-based servers become more popular, then more application vendors will move to support clustering, including possibly Lotus Development and SAP.

The specification's main backers--Intel, Microsoft, Compaq--have a keen interest in seeing that clustering evolves quickly for PC servers and for obvious reasons: they want a bigger piece of the workgroup server market.

But the initiative also includes support from Unix stalwarts such as Santa Cruz Operation, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Digital. Novell is also involved in the process and hopes to support the specification in its Wolf Mountain set of clustering technologies.

"There is nothing in the specification that is specific to the Intel architecture, or Microsoft operating systems, or Compaq servers," noted Mitch Shults, director of server platform marketing for Intel's Enterprise Server Division. "What we're trying to do is create an environment for a wide variety of innovation and competition."

General release of the specification is set for June or July, according to Shults, with early demonstrations of VI targeted for the end of the year. Operating systems and server and network interface hardware will most likely start supporting VI in 1998.

Analysts said the effort will increase the practicality of clustered server systems by offering a "one-design paradigm" for developers. "What this is trying to do is get away from the old way of doing things," said Jerry Sheridan, analyst with market researcher Dataquest.

About 40 vendors have supported the specification. They include Tandem Computers, Oracle, Informix Software, and Stratus Computer.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.