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Three Technologies On Every System Builder's Radar

System builders have a lot to look forward to in 2008—with advances in graphics, storage and data center technology quickly coming down the pike. But is it for real, or just hype? We take a look at those three areas and offer some insight.

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Advanced Micro Devices Inc. spent $5.4 billion to buy ATI, in the process racking up a $1.68-billion impairment charge related to its 2006 acquisition of the Canadian graphics maker. Those are serious numbers, but Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD insists that it's all worth it. The future of computing, AMD says, is in the fusion of CPU and GPU capabilities into one number-crunching powerhouse. AMD, which in late January released the first dual-GPU graphics card, the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2, is in a pitched battle with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia Corp. for graphics supremacy. At the same time, the chipmaker is in a horse race with larger rival Intel Corp. to get a GPU and a CPU on a single piece of silicon. That should happen sometime next year.

But is all this jockeying just a lot of enthusiast noise signifying nothing for the mainstream PC user? Let's weigh the arguments:

PRO: Graphics power is already a mainstream PC requirement. Independent graphics cards are already mainstream, said Joe Toste, vice president of marketing at Minneapolis-based Equus Computer Systems Inc.: "The strongest part of a mainstream [whitebox] business is the $1,000 system. That's not the biggest part of the market, but we see it as the strongest and the biggest growth area. Every single one of those systems has a GPU in it, so that tells you something."

Meanwhile, the microprocessor battlefront in 2008 is going to feature lots of fighting over graphics platform supremacy, said Rahul Sood, CTO of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Global Gaming Business. Sood said Nvidia "can do no wrong," but that "AMD's ATI graphics are getting better all the time. The drivers, well, that's another story."

CON: User experience is outpacing graphics horsepower as the hot spot for OEMs and developers.

The Nintendo Wii and the Apple iPhone showed us that the interface part of the GUI is at least as important to users as the graphics part. Expect more OEMs to focus on interface improvements across all manner of devices and form factors, said Intel CEO Paul Otellini during his keynote at January's Consumer Electronics Show.

"To picture the transition to a more natural interface, think about the Wii. The popularity of it lies with the interface and not the graphics. You don't expect to play a game on the Wii; you expect to interact with it," Otellini said.

VERDICT: Graphics are for real in 2008.

Next: Solid-State Drives

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In late December, Intel unveiled the Z-P140 PATA, a tiny flash drive the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant calls "the tiniest SSD in the industry." Weighing less than a penny, this miniature device comes in 2-GB and 4-GB flavors, with 8-GB and 16-GB extensions also available. Don Larson, product line manager at Intel's NAND Products Group, said solid-state drives utilizing flash memory like the Z-P140 are going to eventually spell the end of hard disk drives (HDDs), though he conceded that may take a long time.

Intel is by no means alone in evangelizing the shift to solid state. Recently, 3M spin-off Imation of Oakdale, Minn., announced a deal to brand and distribute Seoul, South Korea-based Mtron Co. Ltd.'s line of SSDs. The top-of-the-line Imation SSD PRO 7000 features a maximum read speed of 120 MBps, maximum write-speed of 90 MBps and random access time of under 0.1ms. But can we really dismiss HDDs just yet? Or will SSDs remain a niche option for VARs and system builders well into the foreseeable future? Let's look at what we know:

PRO: SSDs offer advantages in durability, mobility and power consumption, plus they're getting cheaper.

"The cool thing about solid state is you don't need to be a hard drive manufacturer to get into the game. We'll likely see various memory manufacturers, semiconductors and others jump into the mix. The storage industry is about to get turned on its head," Sood said.

Resellers of ultra-mobile personal computers (UMPCs) like Dan Weirich, president of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based GW Micro Inc., are especially excited about advances in SSD technology: "I see SSDs as being a huge advantage, a real driver of mainstreaming UMPCs. Because if we can squeeze more battery life out of these, it'll be huge."

Added Adam Snide, co-founder of Boca Raton, Fla.-based online reseller BuildYourUMPC: "The first round of SSDs, of course it's going to be expensive. But this is critical for UMPCs. I'm walking around with my UMPC, jumping out of my car, dodging the waitress who's about to dump coffee on me—it has to be a solid-state drive."

CON: You still can't fit much data onto these devices, plus they're not getting that much cheaper.

Sood said it's too soon to write off hard disks yet: "I still think regular disk storage will be strong, and it will help supplement the solid-state industry."

Weirich noted that as ideal as SSDs are for the ultra-portable devices he sells, most of his customers aren't relying on GW Micro UMPCs to meet their storage needs: "For a lot of users, the portable computer isn't their only computer, so storage capacity isn't always that important."

VERDICT: SSDs are a great option to offer in mobile computing in 2008.

Next: Virtualized Desktops

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It seems like just yesterday that virtualization was a strange new technology, with the jury still out on which minor data center workloads it might actually put to use. Today, virtualization is touching all sorts of IT processes, with real production impact in the data center and beyond.

At January's DEMO showcase of new technology products, Citrix Systems Inc. debuted its Citrix XenDesktop, the payoff from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company's acquisition of open-source virtualization developer XenSource last August. Promising to "bring desktop virtualization to mass deployment by delivering the first truly viable solution to market," XenDesktop is surely a major step toward taking all the success of data center virtualization and applying it to the enterprise.

Or is it? Let the debate begin:

PRO: Lessons learned in ramping server virtualization mean desktop virtualization is going to happen a lot faster than its technological predecessor.

Asierus Inc., a South Jordan, Utah-based security solution provider, is in the process of converting 85 percent of its SMB customer base to its virtualized "Carefree Technology" service. That means running each customer's entire IT environment from its own redundant data centers via virtualization tools from VMware Inc. and Citrix, security appliances from Fortinet and IBM System x 3755 servers, CTO Jeff Goodey said.

Promising customers a 25 to 30 percent savings on the $3,500-per-seat that Gartner says typical SMBs spend annually on desktop costs, Goodey said, "The economies of scale are pretty compelling at 300 users or so."

Another company racing ahead on desktop virtualization is Ottawa-based managed services franchisor The Utility Company Ltd. In the company's forthcoming "Virtualization-as-a-Service" plan, called Connected Office, VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) can be placed inside the firewall at a client site or hosted at The Utility Company's service center, said president Mark Scott.

"The whole MSP vendor ecosystem is built on that end-client infrastructure being complex. You require all this remote backup and storage, end-user hardware, etc. When you go virtual, that goes away," Scott said.

CON: The rich PC experience many business users have come to expect just isn't there yet with desktop virtualization and, besides, hardware is so cheap now, why bother?

"With the constant drop in prices for PCs and laptops, it's not clear if the savings will be that great," said Mike Backers, CEO of Cincinnati-based MSP Altoria Solutions LLC. Backers believes virtualization at the cubicle level is coming, and will surely "open up some possibilities for MSPs," but won't say if it will happen on a wide scale this year.

Desktop virtualization is still in the "proof-of-concept" phase, much as server virtualization was two years ago, said Patrick Moorhead, vice president of advanced marketing at AMD. That means the technology still must work its way though a period of testing and small-scale integration before seeing volume deployment.

VERDICT: The jury's still out on desktop virtualization, with technology developments racing ahead, but not quite ready for prime time.

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