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Web services and the data center of tomorrow, part two

In my last column, we covered IBM's vision of the future of the data center. In this column, we take a look at the other Web services computing behemoth and IBM's main rival — Sun.

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Continued from Part One

Moving from boxes to services
At the heart of Sun's vision of the data center is a deceptively simple concept — in the words of Sun Software Chief Technology Officer John Fowler, "In the future, the management of the data center will move from managing boxes to managing services."

Fowler says that this is the result of years of evolution, and is not at all a break with the past. He notes, for example, that in much earlier days of computing, when VAXes ruled the world, a VAX 750 would come with a networking card, UNIX, main storage and disk storage, and that when you ran a service, it ran only on that one box. Over time, that changed, and services became increasingly separated from specific pieces of underlying hardware so that today when you do something like make a cell phone call, it travels though many different hosts in many different call centers. It has become thoroughly separated from a single piece of hardware.

Where Web services fits in
Managing services rather than boxes puts Web services directly at the center of the data center of the future, in Sun's vision. Web services, Fowler says, "will provide the management infrastructure to interact with data center elements." So he believes that Web services standards, including SOAP, WSDL, and XML, will be used to manage and control the data center.

Important to keep in mind, he says, is that data centers are rarely, if ever, built from the ground up. Rather, they grow organically over time, and so include a wide variety of disparate hardware and software.

"Data centers are always extensions of what already exists," he says. "You don't replace what you have, you add to it." Web services are the best way to integrate existing applications and hardware, and so Fowler says they are already being used in the data center to "extend the range of older assets."

Fowler sees a three-stage process of enterprises moving toward the data center of the future. In the first phase, Web services are used as a way to express service interfaces to applications. Older applications can be wrapped as Web services, and newer applications can be created as Web services from scratch. It's the first step towards managing the data center as a set of services rather than a set of boxes.

In the next phase, identity systems, directories and portals are built for two purposes: to describe the entire data center and all of its services and infrastructure, so that it can be controlled and managed; and as interfaces to manage the data center. Again, Web services are at the heart of this stage, because they are used to build the systems, directories and portals.

In the final phase, management technologies let you change you data center on an as-needed basis — you'll be able to make changes by managing services, without having to worry about the underlying hardware and architecture.

Sun systems for getting it done
Sun offers two primary product lines for managing the data center of today and tomorrow. Its N1 architecture, handles provisioning physical assets such as computers, switches, disk storage, and other devices, and allows IT departments to activate and deactivate services in a flexible manner, Fowler says. It is Sun's primary offering for managing data centers, uses XML to describe physical architecture and services, and Fowler says that it is at the core of the products that Sun expects to be used to develop and manage the data center of the future. For details, go to http://wwws.sun.com/software/solutions/n1.

N1 has been available for some time. Sun's newer offering, Project Orion, is aimed at the data center as well. It bundles a wide variety of Web services-related tools, including middleware, portals, application servers, collaboration and identity software and more, into a single package with simplified licensing. For details, go to http://wwws.sun.com/software/orion_beta.html and to http://www.sun.com/2003-0226/orion.

A timetable for the new data center
The data center of the future sounds rather pie-in-the-sky, but Fowler says that changes are already underway. A variety of enterprises are already at stages 1 and 2 of the process — exposing computing assets and applications as Web services, and building portals, identity management and directories. For stage 3, in which the data center can be managed and altered on an as-needed basis, Fowler says that a small number of companies are just starting the experiment with the technology, and he expects larger numbers to being doing in throughout 2004.

Service providers will be the first to get to stage 3 because of the obvious benefits that the technology offers. Enterprises that manage their own infrastructure, rather than the infrastructure of others, will lag behind service providers.

But all enterprises will eventually get there, Fowler says. Whether they get there with Sun or with IBM will be the key to the future, not just of the data center, but of the survival of the bitter computing rivals.

For related Webcasts:

  • Webcast: The Web Services Adoption Model roadmap with Eric Marks, author of Executive's Guide to Web Services.
  • For related Articles and Commentary:

    About the Author

    Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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