Emerging Technologies Progress Report

These four emerging technologies made a big splash when they gained attention two years ago. Have they finally arrived?

While technologies continually emerge to take aim at enterprise adoption, few become a significant part of the corporate IT infrastructure. With that in mind, we thought it was time to check in on some of the technologies we had spotlighted in past Emerging Technologies features.

Since their introduction, tablet PCs, InfiniBand, server blades and iSCSI have seen their stock rise and fall as each has evolved. Tablet PCs were once touted by vendors as eventual replacements for general-purpose notebooks, but so far they've mainly been used as replacements for proprietary slate devices in vertical markets. And InfiniBand is finally finding a niche in high-performance server clusters. But server blades, which are rapidly moving into the mainstream, may prove to be the biggest success. And iSCSI isn't far behind, as it ushers in an era of low-cost, departmental storage-area networks (SAN). Here's a closer look at how each has fared so far.

¥ Tablet PC Awaits Horizontal Leap

While General Motors Corp. and other large companies have piloted tablet PCs as a notebook replacement for general-purpose computing, most tablet PCs sold to date have been deployed in forms-based, vertical market applications, where they often replace proprietary systems. Market research company IDC estimates that tablet PC shipments last year totaled 415,000 units, compared with more than 24 million traditional notebooks.

"The first generation really wasn't ready for widespread deployment," says Tony Scott, chief technology officer at GM, citing problems with digitizer resolution, battery life and the maturity of Microsoft Corp.'s Tablet PC software.

A second pilot of HP Compaq Tablet PCs is now under way at GM, and Scott says the hardware has gotten much better. Although pen accuracy and overall system performance have improved, he says, the two-hour battery life is still inadequate.

On the software side, Windows XP Tablet Edition 2005, scheduled to ship with Windows XP Service Pack 2 later this summer, should smoothen some of the rough edges. "Pen support was grafted onto the side of [Windows XP] rather than a major change to the internal structure," says Dan Kusnetsky, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. The next version will "integrate ink capability more tightly" with the operating system, he says.

IDC expects strong growth in tablet PCs, with unit sales doubling this year and passing 20 million by 2008. More than half of those are expected to be hybrid units that include a keyboard as opposed to pen-only slate designs. But outside of vertical niches, users may be reluctant to pay the $150 to $200 premium that tablet PCs currently carry over traditional notebooks -- an amount that quickly adds up if you're buying hundreds of units. Says Scott, "I don't see it replacing the standard laptop for everybody in the next couple of years."

¥ Scaled-Back Expectations for InfiniBand

InfiniBand was going to be the universal I/O interconnect to everything in the data center, including network, storage and server-to-server communications. Vendors proclaimed that a single, low-latency, high-speed InfiniBand connection on each server, linked through a "fabric" of switches, would eliminate the need for separate Fibre Channel or Ethernet adapters and associated cabling within and across racks of servers. That vision has yet to become reality. "Support for storage attachments has been slow at best. Support for network communication equipment attachments is virtually nonexistent," says John Enck, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

But after a few false starts, InfiniBand has found a home as an alternative for server-to-server communication in clusters that are used for high-performance computing and high-end database applications. InfiniBand's very low latency makes it superior to Ethernet for this purpose, and its high speed -- currently 10Gbit/sec., with 30Gbit/sec. on the way -- surpasses the performance of Ethernet and other high-performance computing switched fabrics, such as the 2Gbit/sec. Myrinet. Several vendors, including IBM, Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., have added InfiniBand to their cluster server offerings, and RLX Technologies Inc. in The Woodlands, Texas, has announced support for InfiniBand on server blades.

As the cost of 10Gbit/sec. Ethernet continues to fall, InfiniBand may face increasing competition, especially for less-demanding cluster computing applications. Two technologies could reduce Ethernet's latency and processor overhead: TCP offload engines (ToE), which speed processing of TCP packets, and Remote Direct Memory Access, a protocol used in InfiniBand to improve performance by allowing direct memory-to-memory transfers between servers.

"We're not looking at InfiniBand as the only thing we're going to do going forward," says Steve Woods, systems engineer at MCNC, a nonprofit research corporation in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that's testing InfiniBand in grid clusters. For now, InfiniBand has the advantage over Ethernet. But, says Enck, "we still view the race between InfiniBand and higher-speed Ethernet as too close to call."

¥ iSCSI Networked Storage Soars After Slow Start

After a slow start two years ago, the Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI) protocol is beginning to push SANs down from the glass-house data center to departmental servers. The relatively low cost of IP SANs caused demand for iSCSI storage arrays to outstrip supply last year, according to IDC. In a recent IDC survey of 300 corporate buyers, 67% of respondents said they were receptive to buying iSCSI. And the research firm expects iSCSI storage systems to grow quickly, accounting for 22.6% of the storage systems market by 2007.

Like Fibre Channel SANs, iSCSI allows servers to write data to storage arrays as though the devices were directly attached to the server. But unlike Fibre Channel, iSCSI storage systems can use Ethernet cabling, switches and adapters. Fibre Channel still has the advantage in high-performance data center applications, but iSCSI lets administrators create IP SANS for other applications where the expense of dedicated Fibre Channel host bus adapters, fiber-optic cabling systems and storage arrays can't be justified. IP SANs offer substantial savings over Fibre Channel SANs, especially when Serial ATA disks are used, analysts say.

Wayne, N.J.-based ECI Conference Call Services LLC already uses Fibre Channel SANs for some applications, but CIO B.J. Weschke is using iSCSI storage appliances to support his new Postgre SQL database servers. Fibre Channel would have been too expensive because the servers need to be installed in remote locations, he says. The appliances were less expensive, and despite warnings that latency associated with using a TCP/IP network might require specialized ToE Ethernet adapters, performance of the iSCSI storage arrays has been adequate with standard Gigabit Ethernet adapters. "The pricing is fantastic as opposed to what I would have paid for a Fibre Channel SAN," Weschke says.

"The single biggest environment I see iSCSI addressing today is Windows servers," says David Dale, industry evangelist at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Network Appliance Inc., noting that Windows Server 2003 includes native iSCSI support. "ISCSI is making huge inroads into that right now," he says.

IP SANs could eventually move up the food chain to challenge Fibre Channel, but for now, the main appeal is in low and midrange servers, replacing direct-attached storage with a single, consolidated pool of networked storage. "I see it surrounding Fibre Channel SANs, making the SAN reach way into the enterprise and not just touching a few servers," says Steve Duplessie, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass.

¥ Server Blade Boom Boosted by Big Players

Server blades made a big splash when they were introduced, but uptake within data centers has been limited. Blade shipments last year amounted to just 3.5% of the total server market, according to IDC, with most going into Web server farms, high-performance computing and a few other horizontally scalable applications.

But IDC analyst Vernon Turner expects blades to surge to about 40% of the market by 2008, as IT organizations begin adopting the newest designs to replace rack-mounted servers for a wider range of applications.

While start-ups launched the blade server industry, enterprise server vendors now dominate it. The vendors offer more compact and powerful designs, as well as expanded I/O options. Among the most recent advances: HP is developing a four-way blade based on the Opteron CPU from Advanced Micro Device Inc. that it says will support a "bigger memory footprint" than current designs. And IBM is developing a blade based on its Power CPU architecture and has partnered with other vendors that are offering blade-size Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches that fit into and can be managed as part of its eServer BladeCenter chassis.

Blades do have drawbacks. One is heat [see "Moving Toward Meltdown," QuickLink 41566]. "Thermal issues are magnified when you have a lot of dense servers. Data centers are not designed to handle that," says David Lawler, group marketing manager in the network systems group at Sun Microsystems Inc. As a result, many customers leave racks half-filled, he says, making the blades less space-efficient. And because every vendor uses a proprietary chassis, server blades aren't interchangeable. That has hindered adoption, says Turner. "The reality from a customer perspective is that once you have a chassis, you don't have a lot of choices as to what goes into it," adds Lawler. But Tim Dougherty, director of eServer BladeCenter at IBM, doubts most customers want to mix blades within a chassis. "When I do that, who do I call for service?" he asks.

As the technology advances, the benefits of blades will outweigh these concerns, Turner claims. "There's a tremendous opportunity for multiple OSs running inside a single blade environment," he says. Blades are likely to gain ground as a tool for server consolidation as well as for virtualization and utility computing.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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