Riding Out the Twists and (Down)Turns

In a cab from Austin's Bergstrom Airport, the driver told us that with the slowdown at Dell, it was tough to make $100 for a 16-hour shift these days.

In a cab from Austins Bergstrom Airport, the driver told us that with the slowdown at Dell, it was tough to make $100 for a 16-hour shift these days. That was a far cry from a year ago, when cabs for the Austin-to-Round Rock ride were always in demand. It was also a far cry from his home in Africa, where an endless civil war convinced him that anything was better than staying where he was.

The reason for my trip to Round Rock was a briefing by Dell execs on their enterprise server plans. In the past, there were always three ingredients required to make a server business go from lukewarm to hot: a new chip generation, a new rev of the operating system, and a reason in the form of new applications or some cost savings to dip into the IT budget for servers.

The new chip generation is Intels Itanium IA-64 processor. The chip is a couple of years late in getting out of the fab but does mark the start of yet another generation of processors from Intel. The operating system will be Microsoft XP in October. And the new applications that will drive the business during the current high-tech doldrums? Now, that is the question.

Dell, which has an Itanium server in the wings, hosted a group of users who did a good job representing the universe of reasons the Itanium/XP duo has potential. Id still put it all in the "potential" category.

While the inclination is to look at a rack full of processors and reflect on all the processing power sitting in the cage, the reality is that the gap between lots of stacked processors and useful computing is a large chasm indeed.

Scott Sullivan, vice president of technology for Homestore.com, said the Itanium boxes might work well as part of a server consolidation strategy. Gerd Heber, the senior research associate for the Cornell Fracture Group, said the new servers hold the promise of bringing down computing costs for modeling-intensive applications.

NASDAQs chief technology architect, Jim Richmann, saw some use for the servers as processors to provide new front-end database analysis capabilities but questioned their readiness for the core stock transaction system.

Motorolas Windows infrastructure strategist, Bill Anderson, said it best when he remarked he didnt know what applications would drive demand for the Itanium servers, but hed wait for the user community to ask for applications that Itanium would satisfy better than other processors.

Long gone are the days of buying a new server simply because it is the next model in the processor/software evolution. Showing off the next-generation boxes is fine, but finding a way to help those users build the applications they need will be the only way for that Austin cabbie to find replacement fares for those riders now riding out the tech downturn.