April 1996



Servers reign in the midst of the networking revolution.

Sun Microsystems has a trademarked slogan that best sums up the 1996 hardware market: "The network IS the computer." Federal agencies are closing big data centers and moving from mainframe-based processing to distributed processing, in which PCs and workstations work through powerful servers to tap sophisticated computers for software and applications that then can be used locally. Any type of hardware that aids construction of these client-server networks is hot this year.

Spurring the networking revolution is a new generation of super-fast semiconductor chips, such as Intel's Pentium Pro-or P6. The company recently introduced a circuit board containing four P6 chips that is designed as a building block for low-cost servers.

Giving the Quad P6 boards major competition will be new 64-bit chips from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Sun. Although twice as expensive as their 32-bit predecessors, 64-bit microprocessors can easily support large file systems and computer-intensive functions such as data warehousing and Web applications.

Servers. The Internet has helped drive the demand for servers, which manage networks of desktop computers. Agencies seeking robust machines to act as Web hosts are turning to 64-bit Unix models from companies such as Silicon Graphics, or four-processor Pentium servers such as Dell's new PowerEdge EL.

The buzzword in servers is a technology known as symmetric multiprocessing (SMP). New models from vendors such as Compaq and IBM are featuring SMP architectures that provide efficient sharing of server resources to increase system performance. Each of the processors has equal access to all system resources, thus enabling servers to benefit from the full power of all processors.

Workstations. Agencies running video- or graphics-intensive applications such as telemedicine, computer-aided design and geographical information systems should welcome the arrival of new 64-bit workstations. These powerful machines are designed for a variety of tasks in the intelligence, defense and scientific fields.

Sun's UltraSPARC workstations, for example, run three times faster than previous models. Users concerned about a dearth of 64-bit software might want to examine Windows NT-based systems such as Dell's OptiPlex or Digital Equipment Corp.'s Celebris XL. These workstations are outselling Unix in some markets.

PCs. As servers and workstations soar in popularity, PC sales are slowing. Vendors have slashed prices to the point where some models are in the $1,000 range.

Though PC prices are lower, quality has never been higher. New models are offering twice the power of last year's machines, with 50 percent more disk storage space. IBM hopes to bring prices down even more with its interpersonal computers. Due out next year, these scaled-down PCs will attach to high-speed networks linked to centralized computers where processing would take place. Though lacking floppy-disk drives and other common PC features, these $500 machines could be ideal for doing rudimentary functions.

Portables. The portable-computer market will continue to thrive in 1996. Sleek new laptop and notebook models from vendors such as Compaq, NEC, Texas Instruments and Toshiba offer almost as much power and memory as some desktop machines, with prices in the $2,000 range. Some notebooks are weighing in at 5 pounds, with color active-matrix displays measuring almost the same size as PC monitors. And new lithium-ion batteries are strong enough to power both laptops and cellular phones for several hours.

The trend in portables is toward modular designs that enable users to mix and match components. Floppy drives, extra battery packs and CD-ROM units can be popped into keyboard bays as needed. Port replicators allow for easy docking of laptops to desktop monitors and keyboards, enabling users to tap into office networks when they are not on the road.

Mainframes. The Office of Management and Budget recently directed agencies to close and consolidate small and mid-size data centers by 1998. Approximately three-quarters of all existing mainframe operations are expected to be shut down-leaving fewer than 50.

The remaining data centers will face many challenges as they take on more work. Helping them will be a new mainframe technology -CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor)-that will make big-iron machines from Amdahl, Hitachi and IBM more powerful. And since they can be air-cooled instead of water-cooled, the mainframes will be much cheaper to operate.

Supercomputers. The government's High Performance Computing and Communications program has helped revive the ailing supercomputer market, which was almost put out of business by the end of the Cold War. The five-component program addresses fundamental problems in science and engineering.

New parallel-processing systems from companies such as IBM and Silicon Graphics offer speed and memory capacity necessary to model large, complex physical structures and processes quickly and accurately. Cray Research's model T3E, for example, can handle one trillion calculations a second-making it a new weapon to help researchers wipe out diseases, save the environment and make transportation safer and more energy efficient.

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