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Channel Watch

Looking out for the Little Server

I'm uneasy about the future of server hardware for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). You know, the free-standing server that runs file-and-print or e-mail or Windows Small Business Server in a closet, alone or with a few peers?

It's not that we're seeing a degradation in server quality right now. It's a question of how the industry's increasing focus on not only the big guys, but the absolutely huge guys, will affect SMB customers.

When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave his proclamation last month that cloud services will be at the core of everything Microsoft does, that crystallized my concern. The main thrust of his speech was a discussion of basic principles or "key dimensions" of Microsoft's definition of cloud computing. It was all fairly standard, 30,000-foot view kind of stuff. What got me thinking were his comments on servers.

"The cloud is changing the way we think about server hardware and software," Ballmer said, and he went on to talk about how the next-generation of server design will allow servers to run much cooler with lower power for use in dense racks at huge data centers. For his speech at the University of Washington, he'd brought along a "cloud in a box" that included the equivalent of 10,000 servers.

Servers that run cooler and use less energy are an unmitigated good. My concern is that the biggest customers will drive all server design from here on out. In that driver's seat is Microsoft (with its data centers of up to 700,000 square feet), Google and the handful of other huge cloud players.

As an analogy, I'd like to provide a textbook example, literally. In the school textbook world, the decisions of the committee in Texas that decides on state curriculum ends up determining the curriculum for much of the United States. Because the Texas market is one of the biggest, textbook publishers must meet those standards, and many of the rest of the states get to choose from textbooks written for the Texas standards.

Already, we hear references to Microsoft, Google or Amazon engineers being on the design committees for new server hardware -- and those super data center projects have got to be where the Hewlett-Packards, Dells and IBMs of the world put their top engineering talent.

That work will arguably trickle down to cloud-in-a-box configurations that are useful for enterprise customers. It's likely that more and more SMBs will be satisfied, or have to be satisfied, with the cloud offerings that Microsoft, Google and others provide, and stop running their own servers. But all this could leave midmarket customers and the partners who serve them in something of a technology ghetto.

What's your take? Let me know at sbekker@rcpmag.com.

Meanwhile, way back in February 2008, I used this space to urge you to think about creative ways to combine the mid-market-focused Windows Essential Business Server (EBS) bundle with Dynamics for customers. Well, never mind. Microsoft deep-sixed EBS. I'll take solace that Microsoft did agree with one of my ideas from the same column -- to create a Competency for partners specializing in midsize business.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.