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Cutting choice to get more choice

Standard platforms move choice to the right place

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Comment These days, experienced IT systems users looking to create an agile business environment have to make a simple but fundamental change in approach. A good analogy to that change might be their view of the pen, where they have to stop concerning themselves about issues such as `ink delivery technologies’ and instead get interested in what can be written, and why.

In IT terms, an important part of that change comes from the trend towards increasingly standardised platforms, on which an increasing variety of applications and services can be built far more easily than in the past.

Move along the platform

While there will never be a single standard platform on which any application or service can be built, the number of choices facing most IT users nowadays has reduced to a handful of options. In a growing number of cases, those choices have reached the level of being "no-brainer" decisions. This is particularly important where the speed with which new applications or services can be developed and integrated into the production environment is important to the business. Reducing the choice in platform terms can open up the choices and options for the business.

The choices split into hardware platform and operating environment, and in each of those there is a "proprietary" and an "open" option.

There is still a significant place occupied by proprietary server hardware and, though it could hardly be called standard, even here there is a measure of "standardisation" creeping in. True, it is just the standardisation of reduction in choice, but the successful proprietary platforms, such as IBM’s pSeries systems running the Risc-architectured Power 5 processor family and the zSeries mainframes, together with Sun Microsystems’ UltraSparc-based servers, still largely dominate the high-end, mission critical business applications sector. For those types of applications the choice of platform is fairly limited.

Somewhere between these proprietary servers and standard systems lies HP, which still has a Risc-architected server line, though it is now on the path to obsolescence. It is being replaced by a high-end server family based on Intel’s Itanium 64-bit processor, which is intended to be a next-generation of standard architecture. The jury is still out on that particular possibility, however.

For the foreseeable future, standard hardware platforms will be based on Intel’s Xeon and AMD’s Opteron processors which, now they both come in 64-bit versions that offer very large memory addressing capabilities, look set to dominate standard platform hardware for the next 10 years or more. Such systems have an honourable history going back many years, in even the largest enterprises.

That has, however, largely been at the departmental server level. But as the processors have become more powerful and so spawned more powerful servers from the major vendors such as Dell, IBM, HP, Fujitsu-Siemens and many others, they are starting to fill a central role in many businesses.

Though there are differences between the offerings from these suppliers all the systems are built on the same fundamental architecture, and run the same operating systems. This may reduce choice at one level but it frees up users to add new applications and services with ease, as the vast majority have been written to run on this standard platform architecture.

Flavour of the future

When it comes to operating systems the proprietary options are the main flavours of Unix from IBM, Sun and HP. Today, however, these are only a choice for the largest enterprise installations. For all others, the choice is now between two operating systems – Microsoft Windows and the commercial implementations of the open source Linux operating system.

The majority of business-oriented applications are available for both operating systems, and so the choice between them is now usually driven by such factors as the experience and history of the applications development team and any requirements that are driven by the needs of a business to interoperate with third parties such as partner companies, suppliers or customers. This is particularly the case with web services-based applications that directly interoperate with services in those partners’, suppliers’ or customers’ systems. Here, the choice will normally fall between .Net for Windows and Java for Linux.

In nearly all these areas, the choice of hardware and operating system offered to users looks increasingly restricted, and in many ways they are. But such restrictions, built as they are on platforms that now provide significant performance levels, free up users to make the choices – and act upon them rapidly – that are far more important to the performance of the business. And for business users that is, arguably, the place they actually need to be.®

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