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Issue of February 2003 
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The server metamorphosis

Servers have evolved tremendously over the last 30 years. The evolution is influenced by changing business requirements and applications rather than technological developments. by Minu Sirsalewala

The Indian enterprise has witnessed the evolution of servers over a span of 30 years (See box: From mainframes to blades). From mammoth 'iron boxes' hogging entire floor levels, to sleek Web servers in the form of racks and blades, servers have indeed evolved tremendously. For businesses, servers form the crux of its IT infrastructure. And server technology is constantly evolving to keep up with ever-changing business requirements. Enterprises have deployed many servers over the years for the various applications that are so crucial to business. The Network Magazine team took a trip down memory lane and explored how servers have evolved in Indian enterprises from the Petroleum, Banking and Manufacturing sectors. Our first stop was HPCL where we spoke to an enthusiastic IS manager.

Harsh Kumar, Advisor-IT, HPCL took us back to the era when HPCL first deployed 'big iron' at its office. He explained how these "boxes" have evolved over the years.

"HPCL was amongst the first few Indian companies to deploy servers for commercial use," claims Kumar. "Others like the Indian Railways, a few airline and insurance companies also made use of servers then. Way back in the late 60s we used the 1401 (IBM mainframe) that ran on Autocoder. This machine was robust and was used for 15 years."

Harsh Kumar added that in the 60s and 70s a program was generally static—once written it wasn't modified for a long time. This is because the business needs and processes were not dynamic and did not change frequently. Thus a particular application could run for years without any upgrade.

The reason why servers have undergone changes over the years is directly proportional to ever-changing and growing business needs. Server requirements are directly related to the expanding business and business processes.

"With the need to grow (business growth) comes the need for applications, and these applications in turn raise the need for a particular server to execute the application," says Kumar.

Then HPCL moved to the next era when the corporation went in for a Distributed Data Processing (DDP) system. This was when the client-server model became widespread.

"This system required a small server at every location (around 200 locations) across the country connected to the main server at the central location. These boxes ran on SCO Unix, whereas the others were Windows NT with Windows servers," says Kumar.

These machines were not the so-called 'server-class' machines as they were not redundant and did not have robust architecture.

In the 90s, HPCL deployed HP 9000 with Cobol as the programming language for its business applications. These were highly robust machines and were used for eight to nine years. HPCL recently phased out these machines due to change in applications.

The current set-up at HPCL includes a mix of various boxes from a number of vendors specific to the applications running in the corporation. It also has Intel Xeon 4-way machines running Windows 2000. Kumar pointed out that servers in his corporation have evolved over a period as per changing business environments and needs.

Our next stop was a financial institution that invests heavily in server infrastructure, that's accommodated on three floors of its own data center. Unlike HPCL, this institution does not have a long history of servers. However, it does have a modern and sophisticated set-up that undergoes frequent changes. We met an obliging VP-IT at HDFC Bank.

"We do not have a systems history dating back to the 60s or 70s—ours is a more recent set-up as the bank was set up only in the 90s," says S.R. Balasubramanian, VP-IT at HDFC Bank. "But we do have a complex set-up that has undergone major changes with the changing business processes and expanding network across the country."

Bala informs that the bank had a centralized data center from day one, when it used Intel servers on SCO Unix for banking applications. Initially the bank had two branches, but as more branches were introduced, it slowly moved to the Unix platform. This clearly indicates the change based on new applications.

According to Bala, another factor that influenced the shift was the latest technology available, keeping in mind the reusability of old servers for test environment and less resource intensive applications. Bala added that the cost of hardware has come down drastically over the years in India.

"The Intel server which used to cost Rs 6 lakh five years back is no more available. In its place there are 10 times faster servers (clock speed), with 15 times more RAM capacity; 10 times higher disk capacity, and with redundant power supply (RPS) at almost two-thirds the price.

HDFC Bank is using rack servers as they take up less floor space. It can stack up to 10 servers in a single 19-inch rack. The bank is also using blade servers. It is possible to fit 10 or 12 blade servers in a single 4U space in the rack. This provides for as many as 80 to 90 servers in a single 42 U rack, informs Bala.

Bala explains that it is the buyers market. The vendor who understands the buyer's requirement can be ready with a product that is rich in features (self diagnostic tools with self healing software, remote monitoring tools etc.), at an affordable price.
The price of high-end machines (Unix servers) has also come down in the recent years with more features, higher speed, CPUs, RAM and disk capacity.

"Huge investments are made in deploying these boxes. In the dynamic environment we operate in, there are applications and processes implemented every hour. This means getting in new boxes to execute these applications, or upgrade the existing systems," says Bala.

And what does HDFC do with servers that are detached from core operations? It uses the old servers for running less intensive applications or as fall-back servers so as to ensure minimum downtime.

From the Banking sector we traverse to Manufacturing. We chose Honda Siel Cars India, and discovered that this company too does not have a long history of servers.

Hilal Isar Khan, Head-IT Honda Siel Cars India Ltd, says they started out in 1997 with basic infrastructure comprising a UTP and hub-based network catering to the basic transaction systems (the proprietary ERP of Honda Motors Japan called Honda Integrated Package or HIPACK).

"This application was hosted on IBM AS/400 using DB2 as the RDBMS and RPG and CL as the programming languages. When we felt the need for a mailing system, we deployed IBM Netfinity servers—Windows NT based servers with Lotus Notes for messaging. This clearly indicates that, as and when applications have been needed, the servers follow suit to execute these applications smoothly and effectively," says Khan.

According to Khan, with the expansion of operations and addition of applications like financial accounting, payroll, HR, appraisals, training etc, new systems had to be deployed. Honda Siel also deployed some IBM x-series servers with Windows NT when it expanded its network, communication system, and set up backup and disaster recovery systems. Today Honda Siel has different servers for different type of applications—and it's all need based of course.

Sizing for data processing

The nature of applications performed by a computer is another aspect of its size. In general, larger computers are used for a broader range of applications, than are smaller computers. That is because the largest computers support more users, with more diverse needs, than do smaller computers. To illustrate this, consider a typical bank. Banking executives use microcomputers to do 'what-if' analysis, make decisions, etc. Each branch may have a minicomputer to support a variety of needs for the individual branch. And the bank may have a centralized mainframe computer that supports all the bank's branches, providing for an even broader range of needs. In other words, the bank uses microcomputers for applications at the individual level, minicomputers at the departmental or branch level, and mainframe computers at the corporate level. In a distributed multi-branch banking system, microcomputers are used by a few people at each branch (mainly people who have decision-making responsibilities) to do non-routine tasks. Minicomputers used at the branches are responsible for local processing services such as savings and current accounts, and loans. Each machine uses a copy of the same software for these functions. The mainframe at the headquarters performs all the consolidated accounting functions and is responsible for processing both transactions through the bank's network of ATMs and credit card transactions. Sometimes, computers of various sizes have similar applications that vary only in the volume of data processed. For example a corner retail store may use a microcomputer to manage its inventory management and a large chain of retail stores may use a central mainframe computer for inventory management. All three stores use their computers for essentially the same function—it is the volume of data processed that distinguishes them.

Source: IBM Mainframe Handbook by Alexis Leon

From mainframes to blades …

It all began with the mighty mainframe in the 50s and 60s. Then came minicomputers in the late 60s and 70s, followed by personal computers and servers from the 80s to present day. Here's a brief overview of each generation of servers.

These are very large and expensive computers capable of supporting hundreds, or even thousands, of users simultaneously. In the hierarchy that starts with a simple microprocessor at the bottom and moves to supercomputers at the top, mainframes are just below supercomputers. In some ways, mainframes are more powerful than supercomputers because they support more simultaneous programs. A mainframe can process several million-program instructions per second. Mainframes are mainly used for voluminous online transaction processing activities, typically seen in insurance companies, banks, and the airline and railway reservation systems. IBM is an established maker of mainframes and some of their popular models are 3090, ES/9000, S/390, and Z800. IBM has now reclassified its mainframes as the z-Series of servers.

Also known as mid-range computers, these were first developed as special-purpose mainframe computers. They were used, for instance, to control machines in a manufacturing unit. They are now widely used as general-purpose computers. Thus the line between minis and mainframes is constantly blurring. Minicomputers work well in a Distributed Data Processing (DDP) environment. That is, the organization's processing power is decentralized, or distributed across different computers. An example is the client-server model, in which end-users can process at their own microcomputers. Minicomputers are used when large groups need access to data simultaneously. The minicomputer can do this because the hardware is designed for plugging in more devices, and the CPU and support chips are designed for heavy workloads. An important measure for mini and mainframes is the reliability of the machine as it generally has to operate 24 hours, where every minute of operation is important to the company. Downtime translates to business loss for the organization. Popular makers of minicomputers include DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) that built the VAX minicomputer used in universities, banks, and engineering firms. IBM also creates mini computer range with the branding of AS/400. HP has a range branded HP9000.

They are small, single user systems that provide a simple processor and just a few input/output devices. It is also known as the PC. The category is termed 'micro' because the fundamental component that allowed the categories development was the CPU created on a single chip (this technology was affordable in comparison to the mini/mainframe) created with the introduction of 'microprocessors.' The microcomputer was often used by a single person for single activities. They are used by medium-sized business and small sites of larger organizations. They are also used in factories to control manufacturing, process control, etc. where numerous equipment have to be coordinated.

Rack & blade
In an IDC where 100s of servers are housed, there is a need for servers that can be stacked in limited space, and also the computing power used should be low. These requirements led to new categories of servers like rack and blade. Rack servers have sleek, space saving designs, and are stacked in a rack. They are ideal for jobs that need plenty of performance in a compact, self-contained unit but don't require back-office "big iron servers" and are mainly used in data centers and in buildings where space is a limitation. The height of these servers is designated as 1U, 2U etc (1U= 1.75 inches, 2U = 3.5 inches etc). HP/Compaq, IBM, Sun, Dell, Acer, NEC are the popular manufacturers in this category. Blade/ultra-dense servers are designed for environments where both space and power consumption are constraints (like data centers). So they are an improvement over rack servers (from the space aspect). They are like cards, each having their own processor, chipset and memory, but sharing a common power supply and storage resources. They use low-voltage processors like Pentium III 700 MHz. As they are stacked like PC adapter cards, they save on space—you can fit more servers per tower box. They work well for dedicated applications like mail servers, media streaming, Web hosting. etc.

Minu Sirsalewala can be reached at

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