by September 17, 2003 0 comments

The Indian hardware market, particularly the PC market, has been extremely price sensitive and it seems that it will remain so in the near future. Dropping prices have fuelled growth not only in PC penetration, but also in notebook adoption, server and LCD sales and so on. But price is not the only thing that changes in the market. To understand what is happening, let us take the issues one by one.

The PC
After years of cranking up the clock speed of CPUs, PC makers have finally taken a pause to improve the speed of other internals too. The improvements have been in works for quite some time now. It is only now that they are finding a place in shipping systems now. A number of new technologies have been added that makes PC and its peripherals faster overall. See the box on New Tech for a discussion of the major ones. However, it will be sometime before the benefits of all these get translated through applications that can benefit from them. 

On the specs front, 128 MB RAM is now minimum for both notebooks and PCs, and 256 MB is also not uncommon. After a brief period when onboard graphics cards with shared video memory held sway, graphics cards with dedicated video memory are making a come back, and video RAMs of 32 MB and 64 MB are fairly common. Intel and AMD processor speeds have crossed 3 GHz, but the mass market is still in the 1.8 to 2.4 GHz range.

The biggest news when it comes to PCs is not from the hardware front, but from the OS front. Almost every PC brand today is selling a Linux variant, priced cheaper than their traditional Windows-based models. This is perhaps the aspect that needs to be watched closely, particularly by anyone who spends a
significant portion of his or her annual budget for basic PCs. 

Sun is also planning to mount a similar challenge with its Project Mad Hatter. Positioned as desktop solution, first under Linux (and later Solaris), Project Mad Hatter will combine open source solutions with Sun’s StarOffice to create a productivity desktop that will run on PCs notebooks and Sun’s thin clients. Sun’s desktop and Linux strategies have seen many a start and stop, where this one goes, needs to be seen.

AMD’s 64-bit Opteron-based PCs are expected to be available soon. Positioned as high-end workstations, these are backward compatible with 32-bit applications. Until 64-bit apps become available, Opteron-based PCs will be used as 32-bit workstations.

Server side
It has been a quiet period for some time now, as far as servers are concerned. Last year, the buzz was about rack servers and later blade servers. Now it has moved on to server load balancing. What has not quite caught the news headlines, but is happening nevertheless, are cluster servers. Seen as an inexpensive way to build up massive computing power, clusters based on off-the-shelf components (Beowolf clusters) first made their presence felt in academic research. And they are gaining acceptance in businesses which need large dollops of computing power, such as financial institutions for financial modelling, manufacturing organizations for design and the like.

Server consolidation is another in thing, reflecting the fact that servers, particularly in Wintel space, are today significantly more powerful than they were a couple of years ago. Simply put, server consolidation is about moving applications that are running on multiple lower powered servers on to a lesser number of higher powered servers. This leads to better utilization of hardware resources and easier management. Symmetric multiprocessing till recently seen as a big iron territory, has moved down into even the most basic of servers. Two way SMP servers have now given way to four way and eight way servers. 

lcd monitors
A couple of years back, the PC design started undergoing a metamorphosis; away from the off-white dull rectangular boxes to more stylish and colorful designs. Lending a helping hand to such a transformation was the LCD panel. Slim, light weight and futuristic, the LCD lends itself to many a design manipulation, and from a functional perspective, reduced the weight and space requirements of monitors significantly.

In its early days, adoption was slow, primarily because of high pricing. But as with most hardware, prices have come down significantly and LCD adoption has improved considerably. Sectors driving the market include BPO, retailing and the corner offices in corporates. A surprising addition to this list is the SOSB markets in the B cities, where pick up is reported to be brisk.

Finally, there is not much difference between the notebook spec and desktop PC spec. Notebook has caught up with desktop on that count. RAM, HDD and even clock speeds have caught up. The big news for the year has been Wi-fi or wireless networking. Intel’s Centrino (see box alongside on new CPUs) that builds in a wireless antenna and longer battery life into notebooks has been launched. But it will be some time before these become very useable. Enough wireless networks will have to be built for that to happen. Hence, Intel is focussing more on China than on India for the

Another minor trend has been the desknote (notebooks without batteries). Meant for those who want a notebook, without the need to be working when mobile, most desknotes come with an optional battery. That explains why desknotes have not been such a hot item in the market.

Maintenance Contracts
Not long back, maintenance contracts came for 10-12% of the value of hardware. With pressure on IT budgets and improving quality of equipment, this figure has come down for large installations. One can safely expect this trend to continue for quite some time.

The big push for basic hardware (barring notebooks) is going to happen not in the metros, but in the B and C cities and towns. As for the technologies that we discussed here, the coming year should see most of them going mainstream. 

New Technology

USB 20.0
The original USB had to wait for a killer application (the original iMac) to come along and convert it from an unused port on the motherboard to a hot interface. USB 2 has arrived with faster bandwidths. Peripheral support is just starting to build up, and first off the block are external CD-Rewriters. 

Originally from Digital Equipment and currently from AMD’s stable, Hypertransport started a replacement for PCI, which was originally from Intel. Hypertransport has now been extended to other things, including network equipment, servers and embedded devices.

64-bit CPUs were the flavour of the year. They are not new tech with 64-bit RISC CPUs being around for some time. Intel came out with Itanium II, and by the time you are reading this, AMDs 64-bit Opteron should be here. 64-bit hit the desktop with Apples G5-based Macs, and Opteron will add to that. The big challenge for 64-bit, as I have mentioned elsewhere in this article, is getting applications written for it particularly on the desktop.

Hyperthreading (Intel’s technology to make its processor faster) is available on P IVs with clock speeds of 2.4 GHz and above. To take advantage of speeding up that Hyperthreading offers, applications have to be re-written. Perhaps that is why the mass market is still below that clock speed.

Competition for HyperTransport from Intel InfiniBand is being positioned as server technology to be used inside servers to connect multiple processors as well as network and storage devices.

Assembled Vs Branded

This is one debate that will not end any time soon. So, instead of carrying the debate further, we take a different track. Here is an insiders view on the advantages of branded hardware:

Assembled as well as branded computers use the same components produced by the same OEMs. So, there is no difference there. It is in three other counts that the differences manifest themselves.

Spare parts
The market being what it is, components of a given spec disappear within three to four months of their launch to be replaced by ones with different bus speeds or frequencies or the like. With assembled PCs, if you face a problem that requires replacement of a component, say a year after buying it, then going out and buying one of the same spec can turn out to be a costly if not frustrating quest. Most brands guarantee a supply of spare parts for three to five years after they have sold you the hardware, even if the particular model itself is no longer available in the market.

Many MNC brands sport built-in system monitoring and management features. These are proprietary extensions that are not possible for assemblers to duplicate. Thus a branded server, for example, would monitor itself and warn you, in case, a part is likely to fail, leading to preventive action and minimum downtime. It could go further and also monitor PCs of the same brand on the network and keep you alerted on problems and potential problems with them, thus making network monitoring and management easier. 

Better design
Finally, the difference between a good brand and an assembled machine is the thought that has gone into the design. An assembled PC is only an assembled machine. A good brand is designed such that the same components provide better performance. This could be something as simple as a better heat sink or a case that fits snugly yet can be opened without needing a screwdriver to a design that provides for better cooling, lower noise or even better wireless reach in a notebook.

Sanjiv Krishen Chairman, Iris Computers

New CPUs

Itanium II
Intel’s first foray into the 64-bit market, Itanium, met with limited success. The Itanium II builds on and betters the previous one. 

Centrino is not just a new processor but also a branding effort from Intel that includes a mobile P processor, a chipset (855) and a wireless network PCI card. It promises longer battery life on the move and slimmer notebooks.

The newest version of Power PC for desktop, manufactured by IBM, is used in PowerMacs by Apple. Apple’s claim of the machines being the fastest desktops has been questioned.

AMDs 64-bit offering for the server and workstation markets. Opteron is expected to hit the Indian shores by the time you read this. 

Athlon 64
Athlon 64 is AMD’s 64-bit offering for desktops and notebooks. The difference with Opteron is that Athlon 64 has one Hypertransport link against Opteron’s three.

UltraSPARC has finally crossed the 1 GHz mark with UltraSPARC III now being available at speeds upto 1.2 GHz. But Sun states that it is not raw CPU speed but a better system design that determines system performance.

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