In Part One I examined some myths about hardware and software appliance. Today I’ll try to describe why hardware appliances became so successful in last years and where.
The basics ideas come from a great NetApp pitch I heard in 1994, when they were very small.Their example at the time was “Routing was done by generic Sun\IBM\HP\Digitital Computers and Cisco turned it into Appliance”. The analogy was “File Serving is done by generic Sun servers and NetApp is going to be the Filer Appliance”, which they did.
Appliances can be great because:
- Appliances can be cheaper than PC – creating a 60$ Small office router is just not possible using PC hardware components. Even $1000 enterprise branch office is better of using cheap CPU and low memory to achieve a great margin.
- Appliances are much easier to install – this is probably still true. Having someone else tie together all the software , do the hardening, remove extra bits and having no drivers to deal with is a great win. Installing the right RAID driver for a generic Linux system can still be quite challenging.
- Appliances can have better performance for dedicated tasks- NetApp favorite example was trying to list 2000 files in a big directory .It could take several minutes in a generic Unix file system. Since NetApp designed the operating system just for file serving it was done amazingly fast.
- Appliances can have a much better form factor - It is quite hard to put 12 Network cards in a single PC.To populate it with 40 is just impossible. Moreover, the network cards on x86 servers are in the wrong side ! Network equipment makers place the cards in the front , while generic servers have them in the back. Again, it seems like a small thing, but try to get Dell,HP or IBM to change that for your appliance.
- Appliances are not managed by the server group - one of the biggest selling points for network departments is that the server group can not touch dedicated operating systems. If a Firewall admin buys a Linux server she has to conform to the Linux guidance and dictatorship of the server admins.If it PimiPimiOS , they have no say about it.
- Appliances are more secure - this is true to some extent just because the functionality is limited and no extra services are installed. However, in many cases it may boil down to security by obscurity. Nobody bothers to update their appliances with latest security patches and the proprietary operating system are not inspected by the community. Furthermore, security applications can not be run on these unique environments.
- Appliances boot faster - seems like a small thing, but waiting ten minutes for windows to load is not really acceptable for an enterprise grade router or file server. It is also quite annoying in your home DSL modem. Actually it is quite annoying on my $2000 ThinkPad. Anyway, having a very small ,optimized OS and no hard disk allows a very fast boot time, along with dedicated thinking about boot and reboot length.
- Appliances are more reliable because they have no hard disk (“moving parts”) - maybe , not so sure about this one. Anyway , in few years no server will have any moving part ( although it seems fans are moving all the time … )
- Appliance have a superior , dedicated management console - this is commonly true. Good appliances have a a great unified web and command line management that bundles all management aspects from image management to application configuration. The problem is once you have 30 different appliances from different vendors each with its own dedicated ChuChuOs. On a side note, it tends to be quite hard to script and program these beasts , for the same reason.
To make the discussion more interactive till i post the third piece here is a small poll to get your feedback.