Why Commodity Hardware Isn’t Always The Right Choice

Why Commodity Hardware Isn’t Always The Right Choice

Most server rollouts are built on commodity hardware: using standard Intel-based systems running general-purpose stacks, which offer the promise of being able to easily switch between providers. That model isn’t disappearing, but in some contexts engineered systems — platforms which have a much tighter integration between hardware, server and application layers — can be more helpful.

Server picture from Shutterstock

The topic of engineered systems was front and centre during an Oracle media briefing in Sydney yesterday (which we’ve already covered in a discussion of developing for Google Glass). Oracle’s regional director for Fusion Middleware Damien Parkes noted that according to Gartner, engineered and integrated systems are currently a $US6 billion a year market. In 2015, Gartner predicts 35 per cent of total server sales will come from this category.

Obviously, Oracle has a vested interest in promoting engineered systems: it will make more money if it can sell its customers both hardware and software. But that doesn’t mean that the benefits aren’t real for some users.

eHealth for NSW, which provides manages IT platforms for health services across the state, is looking to engineered systems to provide further performance improvements on its systems. It has almost completed a massive upgrade to its core payroll systems. That project took three years and covered 140,000 staff. “With that consolidation and the push to move everything to an online presence, we’re seeing the uptake of our platform grow rapidly,” Farhoud Salimi, corporate IT director for eHealth For NSW, told the briefing.

Initial testing of using an engineered system as the basis for an application platform has shown promising results, Salimi said. Performance on some systems has gone up by a factor of eight, and backup and recovery windows have dropped from eight hours to 30 minutes.

Road services organisation NRMA began examining engineered systems after deciding it needed a common platform to make it easier to integrate new businesses acquired by the NRMA. (While it has 2.5 million members, its core roadside assistance business isn’t growing because modern cars are more reliable than their predecessors.) Having decided to using Oracle’s E-Business Suite as its core enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, the NRMA also began examining how to update its hardware platform, which was last refreshed in 2011.

The group eventually settled on using Oracle appliances as the core of its platform. NRMA applications support manager Ashok Sharma said the availability of “pay as you grow” upgrades was a key factor, and overall cost of ownership was lower with this approach.

The big advantage both organisations have seen is a reduction in testing and deployment times. “Needing to test commodity hardware took up considerable time,” Salimi said. “With the new platform, we’ve standardised a lot of stuff for engineered platforms. We know what we’re deploying on. We’ve managed to automate a lot of the cloning and provisioning tasks.”

Salimi compared that to the organisation’s previous platform refresh, which adopted a more conventional “best of breed” approach. “It took us about six months just to get the platform ready to go.”

Sharma noted similar benefits, including the availability of one-click patching and back-to-base monitoring. “We couldn’t have done that with commodity hardware,” he said.

Evolve is a regular column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.