Server appliances can ease IT's burden

By James R. Borck, InfoWorld |  Operating Systems

Why isn't our VPN up and running yet? Is processing overhead for SSL transactions miring our throughput capacity? How much longer will our newest partner have to wait for access to our network?

These are just a few of the questions you can avoid asking your IT staff by enlisting the aid of quickly deployable server appliances now hitting the market.

Server appliances are basically "thin servers," which means they are dedicated to performing a single function on your network. These sealed units, typically sporting Intel or RISC processors, pack a preconfigured operating system and application-specific software that allow users to drop them into place and instantly begin meeting enterprise objectives.

As applications deployment becomes more complex and infrastructures become more difficult to maintain, the practicality of server appliances is a blessing to systems administrators.

Today server appliances are being pushed to market to satisfy a variety of needs, including Web hosting, e-mail routing, database services, caching and load balancing, VPN and firewall security, and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) acceleration. Although server appliances come in multiple flavors, each unit is dedicated to performing only one of the many duties listed.

Compared to multiduty servers, server appliances offer the benefit of being easier to install, given that the software is pretested and preinstalled. Server appliances often require just hours instead of days to deploy, and they cost on par with or below their general-purpose equivalents.

By eliminating disparities between system configurations, administrators find they have an easier time with maintenance.

Recently, a proliferation of new appliances has poured onto the market, with more mainstream server vendors broadening their product lines to compete with appliance veterans such as F5 Networks.

Hewlett-Packard just announced 19 appliances instilled with e-commerce, security, and network traffic-management capabilities for enterprise users and service providers. Oracle and Compaq's EBI (e-business infrastructure) has tag-teamed some nice, high-end products. Sun Cobalt, the venture resulting from Sun Microsystems' acquisition of appliance veteran Cobalt Networks, produces Linux-based hosting solutions.

But server appliances are a mixed blessing in spite of their charms. On the downside, choosing a server appliance limits you to a specific vendor with a particular technology, potentially limiting your flexibility and putting you at the mercy of a vendor's product availability.

Although drop-in, function-specific tools have their appeal, they may not always provide a lower cost of ownership. Compared to managing hundreds of specialty appliances, workload consolidation using only a few general-purpose servers can offer obvious capital-cost advantages.

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