April 26, 2007

New Specialized Servers from IBM and Sun

A short article in the New York Times technology section caught my eye today. The title in the Times is "Sun and I.B.M. to Offer New Class of High-End Servers," and I thought it would describe some new, run-of-the-mill server offerings from the tech giants that offered grid capability, more processing cores, hot-swappable blade configurations, etc. You know, the standard server enhancements that have come down the pike the past few years.

But IBM and Sun are both offering something much different. Something that I think could be signaling a shift in high-end server design.

For a couple of decades, high-end servers were typically massively-parallel affairs built with cheap commodity-level items. They were designed to be flexible enough to tackle most problems that required large amounts of raw computational power. These new machines are built with specific applications and purposes in mind.

Sun's machine -- called the Sun Fire X4950 Streaming Switch -- is designed to be an ultra-fast video server, capable of streaming out millions of discrete video streams simultaneously. It's target audience is cable and telcos, who would presumably insert these machines into their digital video broadcast infrastructure to enable personalized advertising and on-demand content.

It signals the advent of the new, digital video era, and could change the landscape of broadcast TV and advertising. Imagine that instead of buying ad time during, say, "Lost" to be shown to everyone, advertisers could choose instead to show their ads only to those people watching "Lost" who had also watched "Heroes" and "24." While another advertiser could air their ad in the same slot, but only to those watching "Lost" who had also watched "Desperate Housewives" and "American Idol."

More interesting, I think, is IBM's new server. IBM has integrated their mainframe technology with their Cell processor, to create something called a "gameframe." The design is optimized to be able to support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users in an online virtual world, such as Second Life or WoW, with "an unparalleled level of realism to visual interactions.

This is an implicit acknowledgement from one of the pioneering computing companies that virtual worlds are here and are here to stay. And rather than just being an entertainment medium, I believe IBM envisions such virtual worlds as the next step in collaboration and interactive communication, moving towards where Instant Messaging is today.