In-Depth

Hardware Trends: Faster. Smaller. Cooler.

Every type of hardware -- from chips to PCs to wireless LANs -- is evolving to support new enterprise demands for mobilization, virtualization and conservation.

Small, mobile, virtual and green: Those are the key words to keep in mind when making hardware decisions for the future.

Every new iteration of chip, desktop, server, storage system and wireless router is not only getting smaller, but is evolving to better support your customers as they move to the latest mobile, virtualization and green technologies. Here are some of the top trends to keep an eye on as you look to support your customers' future initiatives:

1. Chips Are Getting Faster, Cooler and More Power-Efficient
When it comes to chips, speed is the most important factor, and lately, speed is all about multi-core. While the chips themselves aren't getting any bigger, their capabilities are scaling quickly as they evolve from the pedestrian dual-core models of yesterday (think Intel Core Duo and AMD Opteron) to the quad cores of today (such as Intel's Core 2 Xeon and AMD's Barcelona) to six cores tomorrow. In fact, Intel plans to release its six-core Dunnington-class server/workstation processor in the second half of 2008.

The idea is that the more cores available, the better software performs-as long as it's written to take advantage of the multi-core chips. Today, such apps are few and far between. But that could change soon. Microsoft and Intel have pledged $20 million to set up and fund new parallel-programming research facilities at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop new programming models that can not only take advantage of multiple cores, but also multiple threads within each core. That could be good news for your customers moving to virtualization. With several virtual servers sharing the processor power within one piece of hardware, such multi-core, parallel-processing solutions are already becoming a necessity for some apps.

Along with speed, chipmakers are also focusing on building processors exclusively for the mobile market, which is expected to continue its rapid expansion this year. "Mobile processors will continue on a double-digit growth track for the year and are on track to surpass desktop processors in 2009," Richard Murphy, an analyst for research firm IDC, said in a statement. That said, look for more mobile-targeted chip options, such as Intel's new Atom processor, which is designed especially for ultra-small handhelds.

And finally, while chips are getting more powerful and mobile, they're also becoming more environmentally friendly, requiring less power (some just 50 watts) and cooling overall. That's something your customers will notice, especially because, for many, data center powering and cooling costs actually exceed overall server costs. Look for more-efficient, high-power chip alternatives such as Intel's quad-core Intel Xeon Processor L5400 Series, a 45-nanometer chip with cores that run at just 12.5 watts each.

2. Servers Are Moving Toward Blade Systems
Here the trend is toward small, high-performance blade systems that cannot only easily handle virtualized environments, but tend to be far more green when it comes to space, power and cooling costs.

Whereas a typical 42U data center server rack can fit just 42 1U servers, the same rack can hold as many as 84 blade servers. Add virtualization to that scenario, where you run multiple virtual servers on each blade, and space constraints ease considerably. As space requirements go down, so do those for power and cooling. Because blades forgo certain elements of traditional servers, including monitors and keyboards, and share others, such as power supplies and fans, they tend to be cheaper. And because they're smaller, they tend to consume less power than traditional servers.

"As the complexity and operational expenses of IT infrastructure continue to increase, a greater number of customers are turning to blade servers as a solution," Jed Scaramella, a senior research analyst at IDC, said in a report on the server market. "The integrated nature of the blade platform enables customers to solve energy and space challenges, as well as improve the flexibility of their infrastructure."

Still another option, especially for small and midsize enterprises, is something along the lines of the new modular server from Intel. Much like a network in a box, the Intel Modular Server allows customers to pick and choose the pieces they need to support their organizations. The Intel box can accommodate up to six server modules and 14 SAS hard drives for a total of 2TB of storage. It also comes with Ethernet switches, an integrated storage-area network (SAN) and integrated management. With pricing starting at just $7,000, it's a bit cheaper than going the blade route (see "Intel Aims Modular Server at SMB Space"). So in addition to ease of use and management, it's small, requiring less power and cooling, and it provides integrated storage and virtualization capabilities.

3. Storage Is Getting Smarter
Ideally, by now your customers have migrated away from direct-attached storage systems and onto more efficient network-attached storage (NAS)- and SAN-based systems. The next step is to move to more online, real-time storage versus static tape storage for many applications. Although tape still has a place for long-term storage needs, online disk-based storage eases implementation of lifecycle management while enabling new efficient storage models such as continuous data protection (CDP). Such capabilities help better support mobilization because users aren't tied to one place for their storage. And virtualization also has a play here, as enterprises look to virtualize their storage to go along with all their virtualized servers, enabling more of an on-demand data center environment.

In the near term, storage will continue to eat up a large portion of enterprise budgets, as companies look to comply with stringent regulations such as those set by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), even as disk prices fall to less than a penny per megabyte, experts say.

For example, IDC says the total disk-storage systems market grew to $7.5 billion in Q4 2007, up 7.6 percent from the prior year's Q4. "Data storage remains a crucial component to the successful execution of enterprise business," Brad Nisbet, research manager at IDC, said in a statement. "The disk-storage systems market is benefiting from a wide variety of drivers, ranging from the simple need to store ever-increasing volumes of business data to the more sophisticated objectives around consolidation, virtualization and ease of management."

And as more enterprises look to mobilize their work forces, encryption becomes another key driver in storage. Look for storage systems that do full disk encryption, as well as on the server and in transit. The kicker is that with virtualization, CDP and encryption becoming more readily available, cost-effective and reliable, your customers can now expect to store data more efficiently even as they store more. That also means that their storage should become a bit greener. In addition to arrays becoming more efficient in terms of power and cooling (thanks to programs such as the Green Grid at www.thegreengrid.org and SNIA's Green Storage Initiative), new lifecycle management tools should help organizations become more savvy about what needs to be stored-and what doesn't.

4. The Desktop Is Dead -- Long Live Mobility
Client form factors are changing dramatically, moving away from desktops and toward notebooks and laptops. With portable PC shipments growing 33 percentage points faster than desktops, IDC expects the portable share of client PC shipments to reach 50 percent by the end of 2008.

"Consumers continue to be attracted by mobile platforms and are benefiting from the proliferation of channels and heightened competition, which continue to bring prices down," David Daoud, research manager in personal computing at IDC, said in a recent report forecasting continued growth in the mobile PC market. And that means that for your customers looking to refresh their desktop hardware, this year's best and most flexible option may well be going mobile.

In addition, laptops are becoming more aligned with virtualization initiatives. As more enterprises look to desktop virtualization solutions in which multiple desktops are hosted by a single data center server using products such as VMware's Virtual Data Infrastructure (VDI), laptops become an even more flexible option. Users can receive no-hassle access to their corporate desktops (and their data) both from work, from home and from the road. The VDI scenario is also more secure than traditional setups because all data remains in the data center, not on the laptop machine, which is far more likely to be lost or stolen than a desktop tower.

Look for laptops to become greener this year as well, in that they will become more energy-efficient, sporting smaller energy requirements and longer battery life due to the afore-mentioned wave of newly efficient and cooler processors. Add to that the nascent move to reliable solid-state disk drives a la Apple's Macintosh Air, and laptops become an increasingly attractive client choice.

5. Thin Clients Are Mounting a Comeback
Thin clients are also seeing a resurgence due to the new enterprise focus on virtualization, mobilization and green initiatives. IDC predicts that the market for thin clients will grow from 4 million units shipped this year to more than 6 million units shipped in 2010.

In addition to their current focus on supporting terminal services and Citrix-based apps, thin clients are now coming equipped and ready to handle virtualized apps. For example, San Jose, Calif.-based Wyse Technology announced in March that its thin clients based on Microsoft Windows XP Embedded, Wyse Thin OS and Linux will now ship with built-in support for VMware Virtual Desktop Manager 2, a component of VMware VDI, thus enabling Wyse thin clients to play in a VDI environment. Add to that their smaller form factor, security advantages and lower price compared with laptops, and thin clients can also be an effective alternative for your customers.

6. Wireless Is Becoming Ubiquitous
On the networking front, with all those mobile and virtual users running around, wireless is poised to become an even more integral part of your customers' infrastructures. Not only are internal wireless LANs prepped for a speed injection, but wide-area wireless solutions like mesh WiFi and WiMAX are also set to take off.

This is the year that the emerging 802.11n WLAN standard is set to be ratified, so enterprises building out new wireless LANs should make sure that their router and access points are marked "802.11n-ready." The new 802.11n is expected to quickly overtake the older 802.11b and g, especially as more enterprises require support for voice, video streaming and other data-intensive applications over their WLANs. The slower 54M bit/sec 802.11g equipment can't keep up, while the new 802.11n standard can theoretically reach speeds up to 600M bit/sec. And even if 802.11n's real-world speeds are more in the 100M to 140M bit/sec range, it's a huge improvement over 802.11b/g.

In metropolitan areas, your customers will soon be able to take advantage not only of WiFi mesh technology but also-finally-new high-speed broadband access via WiMAX, which promises speeds of 70M to 100M bit/sec. The WiMAX Forum projects that there will be more than 133 million WiMAX users worldwide by 2012, and that about 70 percent of those users will use mobile and portable WiMAX devices to access broadband Internet services.

Your Hardware Future
Taken together, these six hardware trends can help you meet your customers' escalating demands for anything that supports mobile, virtual and green computing. For example, in the nascent 802.11n/WiMAX wireless world, your customers and their employees could access energy-efficient blade servers running their secure virtualized desktops anytime, from anywhere, using their small, powerful and secure energy-efficient notebooks, all connecting up to the corporate network via ubiquitous WiFi/WiMAX networks.

And those kinds of scenarios are the best reasons to watch -- and take advantage of-these six key trends.

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