When Curt Schumacher began working at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange nearly a quarter century ago, the question of what hardware platforms to use to support the business was relatively simple: "We had two big mainframes with a lot of disk," says Schumacher, now CTO of the country's oldest options exchange. "It was nice and easy back then."

Today IT executives have many more questions to answer before making a buying decision. Blade server or 1U box? Single-chip, dual-core or maybe quad-core? 32-bit or 64-bit? How about virtualisation? Windows or Unix or Linux?

The driving force behind this explosion of customer choice in the server market is the x86 platform, which has grown from its roots as an inexpensive, low-end Wintel box that wasn't to be trusted with mission-critical applications, to the most widely purchased server in the world, capable of supporting workloads once limited to expensive mainframes and Unix systems.

And the power of the x86 architecture, originally developed by Intel, is expected only to grow. Intel and competitor AMD support 64-bit computing along with traditional 32-bit, have introduced dual-core processors and are integrating virtualisation technologies into their silicon to make virtualised workloads perform better.

IT buyers can expect updated x86-based systems from the major server vendors this summer -- most notably, a new chip architecture from Intel aimed at increasing energy efficiency and boosting performance -- with additional enhancements such as embedded security and power-management tools following not long after. AMD and Intel plan to debut quad-core processors in 2007.

"One of the issues [with today's server market] is that every time you blink, something changes," Schumacher says. "In the x86 world, it's definitely a faster pace than in the Unix world or the mainframe world. The road maps went from years to months, [and] now it's lunch periods, it seems."

As a result, IT professionals need to watch developments closely. But they shouldn't rip out hardware and bring in new servers each time an update is released, analysts say. Dual-core servers and 64-bit support are just steps in the evolution of the x86 platform, says John Enck, a research vice president at Gartner. "It's not enough of a change that it's worth altering the buying life cycle," he says.

Instead, enterprises should follow their existing refresh schedule or use operating system upgrades as the time to bring in new hardware. Embedded virtualisation technology is one area, however, where it may make sense to break from the norm, Enck says.

Virtualisation on x86 platforms "is going to take a big step forward," he predicts. "Anybody that's looking to do virtualisation today and plans to do it on a new system, should delay their purchase to make sure they buy the new [AMD] Pacifica- or [Intel] VT-enabled technology," he says.

These advancements should be good news for IT buyers, who now find the low-cost servers to be suitable replacements for big, expensive boxes.

So how do companies know which server platform is right for which workload? As always has been the case, the goal is to find the server on which the software runs best. The answer, however, may come as a surprise.

Processing power

Schumacher, for example, shunned x86 hardware in the early 2000s, when it became popular as a platform for Linux-based applications. Today, however, he's looking at replacing his eight-processor, SPARC-based Unix systems from Sun and Fujitsu with dual-core Opteron-based servers.

"What has happened in the last year is now the x86 [systems] are able to do a lot of the processing equivalent of the Unix boxes," Schumacher says. He is testing dual-core Opteron servers from Sun and Fujitsu and plans to move several applications, including the Option's trade servers, onto those systems in four-processor configurations, giving him the eight processing cores he needs. The boxes will run the Solaris 10 operating system.

"The price point is great," he says. "I can buy one of these boxes for a third of the cost [of a Unix system] and keep the same power, if not better."

But when it comes to navigating the server market, analysts warn that price is no longer enough. When looking for a systems vendor, IT buyers must look at the whole package.

"Price is important, but it's no longer the key thing," says Vernon Turner, group vice president and general manager of IDC's Enterprise Computing. "Look to see whether the vendor has a good blade strategy [and] a good virtualisation road map. More importantly, do they have good systems management? What is their relationship with independent software vendors and partners to make the hardware a solution? We've gotten to the point of saying servers are no longer point products, but solutions."

But even as part of a larger package, buyers recommend enterprises push their vendors for test products so they can try out servers in real-world environments.

"If these vendors are hungry enough, they should be eager to let you try one out as a loaner and run your application before you make any investments," Schumacher says.