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  • The Economist

Delete the Workers

Sun's covert nerd-reduction program will make it much easier to run corporate data centers.

If the number of Elvis impersonators continues to grow at the current rate, it will exceed the earth’s human population around 2010, it is said. The nerds in the typical firm’s IT support department are proliferating nearly as fast. According to IBM, growing complexity means that the number of IT workers required globally to support a billion people and millions of firms connected via the Internet — possible within the next decade — may be over 200m, two-thirds of America’s population.

But fear not. Help is at hand for anybody who fears that their office is about to be swamped by Playstation addicts. It comes in the form of N1, a new sort of über-operating system unveiled on September 19th by Sun Microsystems, a computer maker. N1 will make it much easier to run corporate data centres — thus eliminating much of the work now done by armies of systems administrators.

N1′s key concept is “virtualisation” — creating pools of resources such as computing power and storage capacity that can be used as needed. This is done by automating the work of systems administrators. Instead of having to load and configure software manually, they tell N1 to set up a computer system for them — which, assuming it actually works, takes hours rather than weeks. What is more, N1 claims to be self-managing, meaning that it can, say, allocate additional computing resources to a website that faces a sudden surge in demand. Since this means that the many different computer systems in a data centre can easily be re-configured, N1 in effect turns them into one single big system.

To do this, Sun has re-used technology that is already part of its high-end servers and storage systems. This required designing software architecture that is compatible with many different sorts of operating system. But the biggest challenge, says Yousef Khalidi, chief technology officer for N1, was in packaging the technology. It will only be adopted if the nerds who run corporate systems co-operate, which they might not do if it creates too rapid change or even loses them their job.

For this reason, the “virtualisation engine” that Sun will roll out soon will not include features that would scare the more on-the-ball nerds — say, software that automates the process of translating the concept behind a new service, such as online banking, into a computer system. This can wait until the basic system is entrenched.

It is not just Sun’s nerds whose future is on the line. Its competitors are working on similar plans. IBM hopes that its eLiza project, part of Big Blue’s autonomic computing initiative, will make its huge IT-services arm more efficient. HP intends to build enormous “utility data centres” containing more than 50,000 servers. Microsoft is yet to announce anything specific but has plans for virtualisation software, which will most likely form part of its Windows operating system.

Sun’s established products look increasingly fragile thanks to the creeping commoditisation of its high-end servers and their operating system, Solaris. If N1 is as successful as Solaris, Sun might be able to replicate its current business model on a higher level: just like Solaris, N1 is based on open standards, but works best with pricey Sun gear. If not, Sun may suffer the same fate that it has in store for all those corporate nerds.

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