Could Server Netbooks Reshape the Market?

Paul Rubens
When Asus launched its tiny Eee PC netbook a little over a year ago, it kicked-started a whole new market segment for low-cost, low-powered laptops. The Eee PC now faces competition from Acer's Aspire One, MSI's Wind, and offerings from other vendors, including HP and Dell. By 2011, netbooks will account for about 16 percent of the notebook market, according to estimates from Texas-based research company DisplaySearch. Netbooks are changing the personal computing landscape. Could servers with similar attributes take the server market by storm?

So why has the market for netbooks taken off so spectacularly, and what can server makers learn from it? In the past, notebook vendors tended to stick to fairly fixed price points, increasing the specs of the models that they offered at each price point every few months and loading them with the latest Windows operating system. What this failed to recognize is that many potential buyers don't actually need vast amounts of computing power, storage space or memory. For web browsing, word processing and spreadsheeting, the power of an Intel Atom processor is enough, as is a fairly moderate amount of RAM (512Mb) and a tiny (by modern standards) 8Gb of storage.

Thanks to web applications, faster networks and technologies such as VNC, GoToMyPC, LogMein and RDC, many applications that need more computer horsepower can be run remotely.

With such a limited range of needs and applications to cater to, a full blown installation of Windows isn't necessary either: Many netbooks are shipped with simple versions of Linux that make it easy to carry out the limited tasks netbook users expect of their machines.

So netbooks have gone against the trend of providing more power at a fixed price to providing a fixed amount of power at a lower price. A netbook like the Acer Aspire One, with an Atom processor, 512Mb RAM and an 8GB solid state storage drive offers the power of a state of the art laptop of a few years ago with a price tag of just $319. There's a sort of inverse Moore's Law going on here: a state of the art laptop of today like the 17" Apple MacBook Pro with a Core Duo processor, 4GB RAM and 320Gb hard drive costs $2,799. Something with a similar spec could be the netbook of 2011, at a tenth of the price.

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So how is this relevant to the server marketplace? The answer is that there is a need for inexpensive, moderately powerful servers for the same reason that there is a demand for netbooks: to carry out non-demanding computing tasks like file and print sharing in a cost-effective way. To do that you need hardware that is powerful enough — and no more. What's needed, in fact, is a "netbook server" — yesteryear's power, at a fraction of the costs that it was available then.

Of course, many business applications do need really powerful, high-spec servers, and many organizations are consolidating large numbers of under-utilized servers onto a smaller number of powerful systems using virtualization. So big grunty servers aren't going to go away any more than powerful laptop and desktop machines are.

So what would the netbook server be like? Here are the most important attributes:

  • Low cost
  • "Just enough" processing power
  • High reliability

The processor for such a machine would likely be a server equivalent of Intel's Atom: low cost, and reasonably low processing power compared to the state of the art. But while the Atom is designed to consume as little power as possible to extend the battery life of netbook devices, this wouldn't be necessary in a server equivalent. In theory, a server netbook could probably run on something like a cheap version of a Xeon 3000 sequence processor.

When they were originally launched netbooks like the Eee PC featured solid state drives (SSDs) instead of hard disk drives to prolong battery life, and it's possible that netbook servers would also have flash-based storage. Again, battery life isn't an issue with servers, but reliability is. Flash memory is still too costly at the moment, but in a couple of years it may well be possible to design a netbook server with flash memory designed as part of the system's core architecture instead of connected as peripheral storage through a SATA interface. Such a design would have performance and reliability benefits, and could be less expensive to produce in the long term.

In the nearer future, the reliability benefits of flash memory could be harnessed in servers with small solid state drives by connecting them to network attached storage devices when necessary. Or simply by giving them a number of hard drives running in some form of RAID array.

As far as an operating system, it's unlikely that such devices would run Windows if cost is to be kept to a minimum. Like the original netbooks, the obvious choice for netbook servers is one of the many open source Linux server operating systems — perhaps Ubuntu Server.

Netbook servers could be appealing for a number of reasons, according to Roy Illsley, a senior research analyst at the Butler Group. "Many companies are suffering from data center overcrowding, so decentralizing by running this type of server to run locally would reduce power and heat requirements in the data center. They would also appeal to companies that lack the expertise for server consolidation through virtualization." A server netbook would enable them to do so with minimal cost.

Netbooks are designed to access resources on the Internet rather than running processor-intensive applications locally. Illsley said that server netbooks would have a similar function. "They certainly wouldn't be used to run applications, but I can see that they would very useful for file and print services, or to act as a local data cache (for example for pricing information) so that multiple PCs at a branch office wouldn't have to be updated every few hours."

The interesting thing about the netbook market is that the original concept of a long battery life and low-cost, low-powered device is being diluted as consumers demand more from their netbooks. Models with large capacity hard drives are replacing solid state models (only 10 percent of netbooks were supplied with SSDs in Q4 2008 according to market intelligence company DRAMeXchange), Windows is now a common option in place of Linux, and the screens in the latest models have grown to 10" from the original 7".

But while the prices of the newer models have gone up, they have not gone up by much. The same could well happen with a netbook server, implying more powerful, higher specced models appearing soon after the introduction of the first models. That's not necessarily a bad thing. If server netbooks establish a new ultra-low price point for the lower end of the server market, then that has to be good news for enterprises that use them.

This article was originally published on Feb 24, 2009
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