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Sun working on quick-change servers

The company hashes out a project that would let administrators change the personalities of large groups of servers so the machines can switch from one type of work to another.

Sun Microsystems is working on a project to let administrators quickly change the personalities of large groups of servers so the machines can switch from one type of work to another--a move Sun hopes could help stave off Intel server competition.

Called iChange, the project--a concept at this point, not a product--is intended to help Sun reduce the complexity customers face when running large collections of servers, said Anil Gadre, general manager of Sun's Solaris operating system group.

iChange is named after the practice of re-assigning traffic lanes on bridges to accommodate rush hour crowds, Gadre said. On the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, southbound lanes catering to morning commuters pouring into San Francisco are switched to northbound lanes in the evening, when drivers head back toward Marin County. In the computer world, the idea would involve letting a financial services company, for instance, assign computers to handle stock trades in the morning and account reconciliation in the evening.

The strategy, which would let companies get more use out of the servers they already have, is significant as customers struggle to balance shrinking computer system budgets with growing system demands. At the same time, companies such as Sun are scrambling to eke out any competitive edge as a way of grappling with the plunging server market.

The iChange move is timed in particular to cope with the arrival of superthin "blade" servers, which will enable customers to bolt hundreds of computers within a single rack. Sun, like its competitors, foresees a dangerous potential for management headaches if each server must be controlled individually.

Gadre argues that iChange will help Sun stave off Intel server competitors in the blade market. "We believe blades are going to run into the same problem" as Windows servers did in the past--when companies suddenly found themselves with hundreds of the systems scattered across the corporation. "You quickly run into the problem where things are unmanageable," Gadre said.

But Sun isn't alone in its effort to improve how well blades can be managed. Hewlett-Packard, which announced its blade servers Tuesday, has its OpenView management software, while IBM and Compaq Computer argue that their blade server manageability products will provide a competitive advantage.

"Everyone in the blade space is building something like this," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

The concept falls under the idea of "provisioning," in which software such as operating systems or higher-level programs are sent to a server. "The blade is getting this kind of mass replication software," he said.

What's happening now is that server makers, and to a lesser degree their customers, are working to make provisioning happen faster. "In the past it was annually or quarterly. Now the rollout periods are becoming potentially daily."

A more mature technology already exists to let computers adjust to changing workload demands: partitioning, in which a single large server can be sliced up into sections that can be resized as needed. But that approach, while appropriate for high-end tasks, requires computers often costing $1 million or more.

"If you can get your job done on blade servers, you're going to spend a lot less money," Eunice said.

Sun is lagging in the blade market, Eunice said, but given the shriveled purchasing budgets and Sun's strong reputation, the Palo Alto, Calif., company isn't in too much trouble.

"They can hold off other folks for six to nine months without any major problems," Eunice said.

Although early blade servers are for sale, notably RLX Technologies' two models using Transmeta CPUs, the major server makers are working on their own products. HP's Powerbar is already on the market. Compaq's Quickblade is due in 2002. And IBM's Excalibur, is due in mid-2002.

Market research firm IDC expects blade servers will be a $2.9 billion market in 2005.