by August 4, 2004 0 comments

Basic hardware takes up a significant portion of any IT budget, and CIOs have to constantly battle changing specs, configurations and user expectations in planning and managing their hardware. 

The big news in desktop technology internationally has been the 64-bit desktops from AMD. The 64-bit Athlon64’s have helped AMD increase its market presence if not share. The impact of the Opteron has been such that even Intel subsequently came out with a 64-bit version of the Pentium. That said, the number of 64-bit applications for the desktop still remains minimal. So, investing in 64-bit desktops just because they are there, and are top of the line may not be the wisest of decisions. 

An even bigger technological change happening in desktops is the changeover happening in the basic PC Bus from PCI to PCI Express. This means that in the longer term (say two to three years), any devices and cards, that you have today, and are PCI or AGP based, would be virtually unusable. How does this affect you? More than with your PC purchases, it will affect your purchase of peripherals and add-ons. EPABX devices, scanners, output devices such as RIP machines, need to be checked for compliance with the newer standards, where applicable. 

PCs: Desktop prices are at an all time low. But before you rush to make that purchase, be aware that the internal technologies are also undergoing changes. Be aware of compatibility issues, if any, with peripherals and add-on devices and cards before you buy
Servers: Servers is where the action really is. The focus has shifted from workgroup servers to centralized servers and server management.
Server consolidation, server virtualization, server provisioning, blade servers… by now you should have heard them all
Outsourcing of harware servicing has been practiced for ages. If you do not know, it is called AMC or annual maintainance contract. 
Outsourcing of even ownership of hardware is in
Notebooks have been the product to watch, with prices reaching dektop levels. Before you replace all desktops with notebooks, be aware of issues like data security that notebooks on the move bring to the organisation

On the market front, the assembler has for long been the king of the Indian market, but with the new budget, the price differential between the brands and assemblers is expected to go down even further. Will this reduce the market share of the assembler? While it will put increased pressure on the assembler, do not expect them to disappear overnight. Price advantage is not the only USP that the assembler was claiming. While the big name brands were struggling to come to terms with the demands of after sales service, and (sometimes even of servicing sales orders properly), the assembler, by his sheer local presence, limited client base and word or mouth referrals, has been able to take his value proposition beyond just pricing advantages. Till the brands are able to seriously upgrade their performance on the service front, expect the assembler to be around and thriving, at least in the personal, small office and SME markets.

More than desktops, it is notebooks that became the cynosure of all eyes, with dramatic decrease in prices, to such an extent that a low-end notebook was seriously able to compete with the higher-end desktop.

Many things have lead to the price cuts. Along with duty cuts and a general drop in prices internationally, the emergence of a number of new players in the Indian market with cheaper models has helped accelerate the decline in prices. One interesting counterpoint to this trend has been the advent of Samsung’s NotePC’s in the Indian market. Samsung has traditionally played the lower prices mass-market game in the components business. But in the notebooks space, it has taken the premium route, having only high-end models, priced at premium levels. Is this approach going to be limited to notebooks, or is Samsung testing the waters for a complete switchover to a premium positioning? One will have to wait and watch, and if it does go that way, then the implications will extend beyond the notebook space to desktops, and even to entry-level servers.

When Tablet PCs were launched, the vendors were talking as if they were the next wave in notebooks. A year down the line, one finds that all the big brand names now prefer to keep a polite silence about them. In fact, the only tablets that one gets to see these days come from local brands! So much for the hype. Was it the high price? Was it that performance was not up to the expectations that it generated? Was it that, there was no compelling need? Our guess is, it was a case of option four, all of the above. IBM was the only big name that kept away from the tablets, and in retrospect, it looks like IBM had the pulse of the market right and made the right decision.

As we are writing this piece, AMD has just announced mobile Athlon64 CPUs, bringing the 64-bit CPU to the notebook markets also. Good move, but again, where are the applications?

As enterprises start using more compute-intensive applications, or need to crunch more and more data for the same set of applications, the need for more server power becomes self apparent. Some years back, every one was for splitting enterprise workloads across multiple departmental servers. Now, we seem to have come a full circle, and are in a phase where more powerful central servers are being preferred to disperse workgroup servers. This has lead to a phase of server consolidation, of moving currently dispersed servers on to more powerful single servers, also enabling ease of management and distribution of workloads over time.

Another buzzword that caught the fancy during the year was server virtualization. Virtualization went a step ahead of consolidation, to the creation of multiple smaller, virtual servers within larger ones, to run different workloads in their isolated partitions. The real benefit of virtualization was touted to be the ability to increase or decrease the resources allocated to individual virtual servers as per workload demands. Virtualization is still in the early stages of adoption and is being used only with really large iron servers.

Server provisioning, the third buzzword that made it to all vendor presentations during the last year, is also currently limited to the very top end. Server provisioning is in a way an extended form of server virtualization. It is about having images of installed applications ready, and loading them on new servers as the workload increases. The extra hardware is already in place. The assumption being that as the loading of different applications change over time, you can load or unload applications on a set of servers, as you need them.

On the market front, the most interesting development has been the adoption of the Athlon and Xeon by Sun, to launch a set of entry-level servers. Sun was so far the only mass market RISC player without an x86 server offering. Today Sun offers a range of x86 servers, based on the Mobile Athlon XP, Xeon, low voltage Xeon and Opteron platforms. The jury is still out whether Sun will be able to take a significant share of the x86 server market.

Rack servers are fairly old news now, and even 1U racks have become fairly easily available, in the assembled market too. Blade servers meanwhile continue to be limited to the high-end market and one has not seen any vendor actively pushing blades in this country, beyond that narrow niche. 

Intel’s Itanium and Itanium II have also been fairly quite after the initial burst of visibility. Intel’s partner in the Itanium effort, HP, seems to be the one pushing the Itanium platform the maximum, going as far as to announce that by 2006, it will stop shipment of all other RISC platforms and that by 2011, it will stop supporting them also. It is early days yet, and technology companies have been known to go back on their word once too often. 

Hardware outsourcing
Much has been talked about US and European countries outsourcing their hardware management to Indian services. What has quietly gone unnoticed is the fact that increasingly, even Indian companies are outsourcing the management and even ownership of their hardware resources, including desktops, notebooks and servers. The deals are like most outsourcing deals with the vendor owning the infrastructure, maintaining it, and replacing it with newer ones over a stipulated time frame. Needless to say, it is the big hardware vendors with servicing arms (IBM and HP) who have taken the lead here. 

By Krishna Kumar

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