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Clustering tools slowly emerge

The push by PC-based software vendors to enter the clustering market is slowly getting off the ground, but could yield huge performance benefits down the road.

    The push by PC-based software vendors to enter the clustering software jungle is slowly getting off the ground, but eventually their efforts may yield the performance benefits that manufacturers need to target large accounts.

    Currently, PC-based software is proliferating for fail-over and backup techniques between two server systems. That is, current PC technology allows a set of applications on one Intel-based server to be automatically moved to a secondary server if there is a failure of some kind. That reduces costly computer system downtime. Dell Computer is the latest to offer such functions. (See related story)

    Server-based tools from the likes of Microsoft, Novell, and others may to eventually allow administrators to string numerous Windows NT or IntranetWare-based server systems together as a single, very powerful system for critical application software running on Intel machines. The technology behind clustering was pioneered by Digital Equipment in the 1980s with its proprietary VAX systems.

    That goal seems remote at the moment, with both Microsoft and Novell targeting next year for beta versions of clustering software that support multiple systems working as a single computer, often called "single system image" technology. Companies interested in the technology likely won't see finished products until 1999. Consequently, that could jibe well with the first release of systems based on powerful Merced chips from Intel. Those chips are the next generation of microprocessors and will include support for 64-bit applications, allowing larger chunks of code to be processed at one time.

    Microsoft's clustering work is likely the most anticipated set of Intel-based clustering tools due to the company's dominant role as a partner to Intel in the server industry; the growing use of its Windows NT Server operating system within companies; and the applications support that exists for NT.

    Yet the next phase of this work--to provide a distributed clustering software package for 16 symmetric multiprocessing server systems (SMP)--will not come out when Windows NT Server 5.0 launches. This is the much-anticipated next-generation release of the operating system that is tentatively scheduled to roll out in the first half of next year, said the company. A full 64-bit implementation will follow the 5.0 work.

    Gary Schare, lead product manager for Windows NT Server marketing, said, "It's certainly not going to ship when NT 5.0 ships."

    Most analysts believe the current ship date for NT 5.0 is too optimistic, given the complex set of enhancements scheduled for the new version.

    Schare said Microsoft has taken on a difficult task in building a set of clustering software tools that work with a variety of hardware, such as interconnects between servers. Because the company is attempting to work with so many different systems and components, release dates may not mesh with the release schedule for Windows NT Server, he said.

    Now that the initial version of Microsoft's clustering software--formerly code-named Wolfpack and now called Microsoft Cluster Server--has shipped in Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition, the company said it is turning its efforts to this distributed version of the software.

    But Schare said the company will also work to offer a port of the current Microsoft Cluster Server product to the 5.0 version of NT. The company plans to enhance the NT 5.0 initial fail-over version as it receives customer feedback, adding technologies such as multinode fail-over options.

    Support for fail-over of DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) servers will be included in the 5.0 fail-over version, he said. DHCP is a protocol used to keep track of a user's set of network addresses, like an Internet address.

    Other systems companies with experience in clustering have taken the initial Wolfpack set of software interfaces and adopted it to clustering tools that extend its capabilities beyond current two-system fail-over. Tandem Computer and NCR are among the plethora of companies betting on growth in the NT server-based clustering market. These companies will fill a certain niche, but many customers may want to wait to get clustering software code from the same source as the operating system they are running.

    From Novell's point of view, the company said it has a distinct advantage in the clustering area based on a set of technologies called Wolf Mountain that were originally unveiled earlier this year at the company's user conference. The company has been shipping a fail-over clustering technique for some time based on server "mirroring" technology.

    The next-generation clustering scheme, currently code-named Orion, will initially work only with applications running on Novell's IntranetWare operating system. The clustering software will also take advantage of tie-ins to NDS (Novell Directory Services). But the company said the software package could support Windows NT and various flavors of Unix as well.

    Dov Goldman, president of Dynalog Technologies, a Valhalla, New York-based network integration firm, believes Novell is on the right track: "I think Novell is somewhat closer to delivering practical clustering technology that scales. They have been working this idea (with their NetWare SFT III product) for years now. Microsoft is only delivering two server fail-over in the short term, which just brings them to parity with Novell's existing offerings."

    Goldman added: "Clustering in the long term will only really work when application vendors can support it.? If you look at the market closely, you'll see a number of these guys, like Oracle, who are probably nearer to bring practical product to market than the operating system people.? That's because it's a technically easier task for them to support clustering in their products than at the OS level."