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Invincible servers find a niche

High-availability, application software integration
key pieces to start-up's strategy

By Ann Steffora

November  1996
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Visions of Darwin's theories come to mind when considering the fledgling server vendors taking flight. Under the close watch of the general-purpose server vendors Sun, HP, and IBM, new server makers are hoping to find niches in the open systems server jungle. Network Appliance strives for low prices while Auspex aims for high uptime and capacity. The newest competitor, Invincible Technologies, hopes it will thrive by convincing developers to bundle Invincible's high-availability and fault-tolerant servers with their wares.

The Medway, MA company was founded in 1993, and until recently, developed and sold RAID storage subsystems and an NFS server. On September 30, Invincible Technologies unveiled a fault-tolerant server, which it intends to sell as both an NFS server and as an applications server with Pure Atria and Parametric Technology Corp. Why would two software companies agree to help sell hardware? To create a turn-key product, an Invincible Technologies spokesperson said.

Pure Atria will meld its ClearCase configuration management software with Invincible's Lifeline SFT, while Parametric Technology will co-market its high-end Pro/ENGINEER and Pro/PDM computer-aided design tools.


The Alpha connection
Invincible Technologies Lifeline SFT consists of two Digital Equipment Alpha-based servers, a storage array, and failover software. The servers are independent, and both remain at the beck and call of network clients. Invincible says the Lifeline SFT contains no shared point of failure, and upon CPU or disk flame-out, a failover occurs in less than five seconds.

A $168,000 entry-level configuration consists of dual 275-MHz processors, 20.5 gigabytes of usable storage, 256 megabytes of RAM (expandable to one gigabyte), a pair of RAID controllers on 133 megabyte per second PCI system busses, system software, and a smattering of I/O peripherals.

The Lifeline SFT generates LADDIS benchmark performance of 3,024 NFS operations per second with less than 8.5 millisecond response time. By comparison, a relatively inexpensive UltraSPARC Model 170 yields 2,102 NFS operations per second at 38.6 millisecond response time.

But the real clincher is the elimination of downtime, said Arun Taneja, Invincible's vice president of marketing. If a subsystem fails, one server does the work for both, Taneja said. (Taneja, a former Sun marketer, claims to have coined the term "SPARC.") The system administrator can choose which services, if any, are not critical during a failover. Once the dead subsystem is revived, the Lifeline SFT reintegrates itself automatically, making the administrator's job easier.

Lifeline SFT's Management, Environmental, and Diagnostics Subsystem (MEDS) and Rapid Response features continually monitor the system and notify the system administrator of potential problems by way of pager, fax, or e-mail. Online repair can also be conducted through MEDS, which provides snapshot viewing of processes, logs, vault storage, system cache, and license status.

Shawn Harty, president, New Technology Solutions in Tewksbury, MA said his firm had been evaluating the SFT server for about a month for fault-tolerant data management of Pro/ENGINEER databases. "It has run flawlessly during that's a great server, and supports hundreds of gigabytes of data," Harty said. He also pointed out that the server was not running at its full capacity because it was being evaluated in a training and consulting environment. In a mission-critical situation he foresees the same results, however.

Skip Gummow, lead systems architect for Thompson & Thompson, a firm that researches trademarks and copyrights, has also given consideration to the SFT server. Gummow said the company tested SFT for its failover capabilities by manually failing a wide range of components from RAID units, Ethernet cards, and hard disks to power supplies and CPUs. "When we tested the server for failover, we found that the internal software switched the processing over automatically within five seconds," Gummow reports. Additionally, Gummow said the configuration and packaging of the MEDS diagnostics was a welcome feature.

A key to success?
Jerry Sheridan, a director and principal analyst of client/server technology at Dataquest, a market research firm, called Invincible Technologies a "pretty impressive team." Sheridan also said more application-specific servers are entering the market, since adding fault-tolerance and high availability to a general-purpose server is difficult. However, with a machine that is application-specific, Sheridan continued, it is fairly simple to focus on supporting the machine. This is especially important as more users rely on 24x7x365 reliability. Sheridan expects more vendors will offer high availability and clustering solutions in an "application appliance" type of server.

Sheridan pointed out it is critical for server vendors to find the correct strategic partners for specific markets. By Invincible Technologies being the first vendor to team with companies such as Pure Atria and Parametric Technologies, it may have a leg-up on other server makers. -- Ann Steffora

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