Dan's Take

The Limitations of Appliance Servers

Do you need what vendors are selling?

The journals are filled with announcements of new appliance servers. Nearly every function offered in a server environment has been packaged for sale as a separate server appliance, including individual applications, cloud and application frameworks, security services, management services, storage services, databases, and even mobile application access.

If one wanders through an enterprise or service provider data center, it's likely that racks and racks of these appliances will be quietly humming away, performing their specific tasks.

Some enterprises, wishing to reduce their costs and reduce the difficulties of installing, configuring and operating an application or system service, buy these appliance servers. They buy them in the hope that they'll need fewer types of expertise, lower levels of expertise, reduce the time taken to bring a new technology solution online and create fewer problems in the future. They often are willing to accept limited control over the solution components in exchange for reduced cost.

Multiple Revenue Streams
Software suppliers find this approach attractive because they can control how their technology is installed; who installs it; the physical hardware configuration; and how the hardware and software work together. This allows them to gain revenue from several sources, including software, hardware, professional services and maintenance services for both the hardware and the software.

They see value in limiting their engineering costs by being able to handpick the components of their solution, relieving them of the need to "boil the ocean" by having to support every network, storage and graphics adapter. They can install just the right amount of memory and processor power to address a given set of problems. And when a customer's requirements go beyond what a given appliance server can do, it's easy to just sell them another box than to guide them through what might be a difficult upgrade process.

When a new software release hits, they can make enterprises purchase an entirely new appliance server, rather than trying to figure out a way to make the new software fit into an older box. So the supplier not only sees revenue from the newer software, but realizes the sale of a new server as well.

What's Old Is New Again
This approach isn't a new idea at all. It's one of a number of attempts to improve performance, functional capabilities, and flexibility all while reducing both the cost and, hopefully, complexity of the environment.

While I was part of the Intel/UNIX group at DEC, these many years ago, we developed a series of products that packaged up various applications and important functions as "functional servers" that came from the factory with the software pre-installed, pre-configured and ready to go. It was a new idea at the time, so we had to educate suppliers of application software, database software, and even staff members of other DEC business units (networking and storage for the most part) to help them understand that changes would be needed in pricing, licensing, support, and even how software was to be installed.

Problems With Market Research
We thought the idea would take off and give us an edge over other Intel/UNIX suppliers. In the end, however, we found that the sales of these products were barely acceptable -- just enough to keep them on the books. We learned that salespeople typically used the configurations as templates, but ordered different options to target the needs of their customers.

Why? The product managers selected configurations based on market research, so that a few configurations would address the needs of a significant percentage of the potential market. In the end, customers would tell salespeople, "If you only put this processor, this amount of memory, this type of storage adapter, and/or this type of network adapter in this box, I'd buy it." So, rather than joust with the product manager over an appliance's components, the salespeople just created their own custom version and changed the one or two things the customer wanted.

Many enterprises today have neither the time nor the staff resources to examine appliance server configurations that closely. They just want something that will work, and they want it now.

But it's not always possible to put a solution together that works for everyone. Take, for example, a recent example the announcement by Mirantis, Dell and Junipers of a family of "Unlocked Technology Partner Solutions" designed to make it easier for enterprises to adopt OpenStack as a cloud services framework. The announcement comes not too many months after another OpenStack supplier, Nebula, failed with a similar offering. This clearly demonstrates that packaging up the right hardware, software and professional services and delivering it to the market at the right price is difficult.

Dan's Take: Keep It Simple, With Software
I believe there's a better way to address the need to package a function. Why not offer that function in the form of a virtual machine file or a Docker application container, rather than wrapping a piece of hardware around it?

Wouldn't that approach simplify the environment and allow the function to execute in the software defined environment customers want? I suspect, however, that both hardware and software suppliers will resist a move in this direction. Why? Suppliers having a significant hardware business won't be happy with both the loss of account control (e.g., the difficulty of moving from one proprietary software product to another), and the associated decline of hardware and hardware services revenue. Software suppliers are also likely to resist, unless the package is based upon their hypervisor or their version of Docker.

Wouldn't an environment based upon virtual, software-defined components be easier to install and manage, and more agile, than one based on a herd of server appliances?

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company.


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