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What does a server environment look like anyway?

And how well do things function as a result?

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Workshop Stock photo companies have got a lot to answer for. For most people, the phrase ‘server environment’ generally conjures images of sleek racks of equipment, all glistening chrome and black with just the suggestion that the equipment requires no management at all, or if it does, it will be conducted in some place far away like the control room in the Truman Show.

Such pristine data centres must exist in larger companies (otherwise how could the photos be taken), but we’ve got a feeling that things are less pristine. For a start there will no doubt be a variety of legacy and proprietary kit – as well as x86 boxes, there will be Sun servers, Tandems, z-Series mainframes and so on. If equipment racks exist, they may have to fight for space just like every other piece of kit.

In smaller companies the ‘data centre environment’ may correspond to a box under somebody’s desk, or indeed a glass-fronted cabinet with hefty cables emerging briefly before they vanish into a conduit. Different topologies apply to different kinds of organisation with different management strategies – so one retail organisation may require a server configuration in every branch, whereas another (perhaps with more faith in available bandwidth) may prefer to bring everything into a central data centre and manage it accordingly.

There may not be an ideal server topology – what works for one organisation may prove wholly unsuitable for another. Indeed, such things may also be like the seasons: we’ve certainly seen the symptoms of simple harmonic motion between highly centralised approaches, which lock everything down and save money, but which then drive a more bureaucratic mentality. The consequence is that departments take matters into their own hands, buying their own servers because they’ve had enough of central procurement/operations, or indeed the lack of it.

It’s difficult to discuss this topic without also considering the V-word – virtualization. I know, it does seem to come up a lot, but in our favour there does seem to be a lot of activity around it. Virtualization provides an abstraction layer on top of physical hardware (how many times have I written that recently), which has its own benefits as we know. What we haven’t really covered is whether virtualization will have an impact on server architectures.

Sure, up at the top end virtualization is seen as a catalyst for consolidation – i.e. disparate servers can indeed be replaced by the gleaming arrays of blades that technology photographers seem so fond of. But what of the smaller server environments, the branch offices and remote sites? Do these just become offload engines for VMs, for example, to overcome issues of network bandwidth, security or otherwise?

We are very interested to know more about your server architectures and the challenges you face, naturally. And if you have any thoughts or indeed experience about how virtualization might affect server topologies, please let us know.

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