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Hard disk makers push new server appliances

Hard disk makers, buffeted by plunging prices, are pushing a new category of "server appliances" to boost the bottom line.

Hard disk makers, buffeted by plunging prices, are pushing a new category of "server appliances" to boost the bottom line.

Maxtor, mirroring the moves of its hard disk competitor Quantum, is the latest to join the storage server appliance party.

With Maxtor's latest product, called MaxAttach, it falls squarely into the lower price bracket of a growing category of devices, or appliances, called "network attached storage." These are essentially stripped-down server computers specialized for the sole task of adding more data storage space to small networks. Although stripped-down, the specialized devices will likely serve as a needed source of income for hard drive makers pressed by steep price declines.

The product was developed by Creative Design Solutions, a privately held company Maxtor acquired in August in a stock swap valued at approximately $57 million.

The product parallels a move by Quantum, another hard disk maker. Quantum acquired Meridian Data in May and now is selling its own Snap storage servers.

Selling the storage servers gives the companies a more profitable product line than just hard disks, which analysts say have become mere commodities and therefore are subject to cutthroat competition.

"There is definitely going to be a move toward greater and greater levels of intelligence of storage, and an increase in the value of what storage provides," said Jay Kramer, vice president of marketing at Maxtor's network systems group. In other words, Maxtor has the opportunity to sell not just hard disks, but also hard disks packaged into devices with useful hardware and software features.

The MaxAttach product is animated by Pentium chips and a customized variant of the Unix operating system, Kramer said. A version with 18GB of storage will cost about $1,000. With 72GB, the price tag goes up to about $2,000.

Quantum's Snap servers plug into Windows, Unix, Novell, or Apple networks. Maxtor's storage server, like similar but more expensive storage products from Hewlett-Packard, currently plug just into Windows networks, but the company will expand MaxAttach's abilities in the future, Kramer said.

Buying into server appliances
Network-attached storage is just one facet of the growing server appliance market. Established players are cutting deals left and right to get a foothold in the broader server appliance realm.

Dell Computer and Compaq Computer both have licensed software from Novell that gives them the ability to make "caching" server appliances, or devices that speed up Internet access by stashing information in areas across the network instead of in one central location. IBM has cut conceptually related license deals with Network Engines and Whistle.

Dell and Amdahl both resell high-end storage server appliances from Network Appliance. And Gateway has signed a deal to sell Cobalt Networks' server appliances.

Cobalt Networks, along with another server appliance company called CacheFlow, both have filed their intent to go public in recent weeks.

Other appliances moving ahead
Cobalt and Mirapoint, another server appliance company, also announced new products this week.

Mirapoint, which sells servers specialized for handling email, announced a new model called an email "router" that unburdens mail servers and lets Mirapoint email systems handle more traffic. And Cobalt introduced a product for companies who need to administer lots of other Cobalt servers.

The Mirapoint router makes it easier for companies that have several email servers at the core, said Andrew Lochart, director of product marketing at Mirapoint. In addition, the routers add the ability to plug in antivirus software that screens out viruses in email before the infected email reaches the addressee.

"Current antivirus software is a holdover from the days when floppy disks were the way viruses got around. Blocking viruses on the router is the place to do it," said Lochart. "Antivirus software on the desktop is too little, too late."

Mirapoint is in discussions with antivirus company TrendMicro and with antispam company Brightmail, Lochart said.

Cobalt, meanwhile, introduced a management appliance, said Cobalt's Kelly Herrell. The device will be available both as a separate computer and as a software download that can be installed on existing Cobalt servers.

The appliance will let people control, upgrade, and monitor up to 100 Cobalt RaQ servers. The RaQ servers, boxes just 1.75 inches thick, are designed to be bolted to racks in high-density configurations for companies such as Internet service providers who need lots of back-end power.