The server evolution and what it means for your business

Steve Evans

Monday 24 August 2015

Like so many aspects of the technology industry, the evolution of servers has been rapid. We take a look at their history, from the early days to more recent developments.

It’s quite scary to stop and really think about how quickly the technology industry has advanced. Computers have gone from the size of a room to being able to fit in a pocket; mobile phones have gone from being only able to make phone calls to being capable of running most aspects of daily life.

We create data at a quicker rate than ever; by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet compared to none just a few decades ago.

Servers, too, have evolved at quite a pace. The first web server began development in 1989  the same year Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, singer Taylor Swift and golfer Rory McIlroy were born. It was developed by Tim Berners-Lee and ran on a NeXT computer at CERN in Switzerland. These days anyone can turn an old laptop into a web server with just a little bit of tinkering.

Of course, you can’t talk about the evolution of servers without talking about virtualisation. Pioneered primarily by IBM, its evolution can be traced back to the 1960s. But it was the introduction of that particular facility in x86 server technology that really brought virtualisation to the masses.

These days, over 70 per cent of x86 server workloads are virtualised, according to industry watchers Gartner. It’s clear to see why the server industry is evolving towards a more virtualised future. Server virtualisation makes a company much more flexible and agile; being able to spin server resources up and down as needed makes for a much more efficient environment. There is less hardware vendor lock-in, and it makes the datacentre a greener and cheaper place.

But that’s not to say the whole industry is going virtual. In Q4 2014, worldwide server shipments increased 4.8 per cent year-on-year and revenue increased 2.2 per cent during the same period, according to figures from Gartner.

“There were several factors that produced the strong growth in the server market in 2014,” explains Jeffrey Hewitt, research vice president at Gartner. “On a worldwide basis, hyperscale data centre deployments as well as service provider installations drove the x86-based server market upward.”

As the usage of virtualised servers has increased, so too has the support requirements that go with it. One of those is server input/output (I/O), which is basically how the server communicates with the outside world. Server I/O can become complicated when dealing with virtual servers because of the increased bandwidth, network and storage requirements. Virtualising the I/O increases the available bandwidth, which can then be allocated as and when needed, ensuring I/O doesn’t become a bottleneck that slows the whole system down.

As mentioned earlier, more data is being created now than at any point in the past. All that data has to be stored somewhere. There exists a very famous photograph, documenting computer tech’s infancy, of a massive hard drive with only 5MB of storage being loaded onto a plane with a forklift truck.

Nowadays, servers can of course cope with the huge storage demands placed on them, thanks to the way storage technology has evolved. These units can fit in tiny spaces as well, without compromising performance or power. All of which helps to explain the fact that the per GB cost of storage, which used to be close to $1 million, is now an infinitely more manageable $0.03 per GB.

But it’s not just the size and power of servers that has evolved over the years. Systems used to keep servers cool, for example, have also had to evolve massively. Obviously, the more power the servers within a data centre need, the more cooling is required to keep those systems operational.

In the past, cooling systems in servers relied heavily on fans that move air around, but they weren’t particularly efficient. Now data centre cooling techniques have evolved to keep servers cool in other ways: raised floors to increase airflow, liquid cooling and fresh air cooling from outside, to name just a few.

Today servers come in all shapes and sizes: web servers, application servers, email servers, database servers, file servers, print servers and so much more. It’s been a rapid progression from where it all began and it will be very interesting to see where the next few decades take us.



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