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October 4, 2005 5:52 pm

Serving up a new model system

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Ben Horowitz, chief executive of US software vendor Opsware, says there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and that information technology will get more complex.

That is good news for three-year-old Opsware, whose software aims to improve the management of complex systems.

It is one of a clutch of loosely related new technologies which are competing for the attentions of data centre managers. Others include virtualisation and utility computing.

Opsware is not the only company gunning for this market. BladeLogic is a rival start-up, while mainstream vendors such as Computer Associates, IBM and HP also offer software to improve the management of systems.

Data centre automation, Opsware’s speciality, focuses on the human element, reducing the time staff spend managing the proliferation of servers, network devices and applications found in enterprises today.

“As hardware gets cheaper, people build more applications and there has been a ridiculous increase in the number of servers,” says Mr Horowitz.

A big bank may have 30,000 servers and managing this sprawl of hardware and software can consume 70 per cent of IT budget.

Much of the blame for this situation lies with the internet. Businesses are ditching traditional client/server computing in favour of web-based applications.

These are cheaper and quicker to develop, but the cost of supporting them is starting to grow alarmingly. As well as licence fees, there are labour costs which, unlike other IT costs, cannot simply be switched on and off.

Opsware believes the answer lies in automation. Its software automatically reconfigures hardware, installs patches, enforces network policies and a myriad other trivial but time-consuming tasks.

Of course, an alternative to managing complexity is to avoid it in the first place – by not developing new IT systems.

After years of trying to keep up in the technological arms race, many organisations see attractions in a new school of thought, dubbed “good enough computing”, which argues there is no competitive advantage in having the latest technology.

For a finance director, good enough computing clearly makes sense. It lets businesses hang on to outmoded legacy systems instead of buying new ones.

“Once an application has been built, the cost of changing it is high compared with the cost of keeping it running,” says Bob Suh, Accenture’s chief technology strategist.

But in the longer term, outdated systems lead to higher costs, both in maintenance and lost productivity.

An Accenture survey of 300 organisations argues that what really matters is not the level of IT spending but rather “spending quality” – how much of the IT budget goes on building new systems rather than maintaining old ones.

The study finds that high-performing organisations spend 40 per cent more of their budget on building and integrating new systems than low-performing one.

Mr Horowitz of Opsware says the Accenture findings are a powerful argument in favour of data centre automation. He also argues that what Opsware’s technology does is very different from the established systems management solutions of vendors such as IBM, HP and Computer Associates.

Mr Suh agrees: “Opsware works because it is unencumbered by older legacy technologies.” Nevertheless, its automation software is not the only technology on offer.

HP, for example, is making a lot of noise about virtualisation, a technique for making one physical server appear to be several different ones. “Virtualisation is focused on making IT changes in real-time,” says Nick van der Zweep, HP’s director of virtualisation. “If it takes two months to change a system, that is a real problem if you are trying to make your business more responsive.”

HP says virtualisation can save not just hardware costs but software licence fees as well. Much commercial software is licensed on a per-server basis, so fewer servers means fewer licenses. Software vendors are watching virtualisation anxiously.

Utility computing is another “more with less” technology, in which IT resources can be turned on or off according to demand.

IBM invented the data centre and, not surprisingly, it believes businesses should come to it rather than start-ups. “We are viewed as the trusted adviser for the data centre,” says Douglas Balog, vice-president of IBM’s systems and technology group.

Nevertheless, Mr Suh, says many organisations are turning to start-ups such as Opsware because they offer fresh approach to an age-old problem.

“This issue has plagued large enterprises for many years and all the easy tricks have been played,” he says.

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