Management, compliance, and security concerns have made consolidation all the rage in large organisations, which have increasingly moved their applications and data from globally dispersed servers to a few centralised, tightly secured data centres. With the trend toward intelligent networks, we may one day see remote offices with very little intelligence of their own.

"We're finding that organisations want to pull more and more of their persistent data back into the data centre," says Joe Skorupa, research director at Gartner. "Whether the reason is Sarbanes-Oxley or the need to reduce operating overhead, they want as little as possible in the branch office."

As networks become better at managing application delivery and performance over the WAN, the prospect of moving just about everything into the data centre becomes much more practical.

"You'll no longer run any SQL Server or Microsoft Exchange in the branch," Skorupa says. "Instead, the branch office server may wind up running only DNS, DHCP, print services, and a domain controller. With the leftover processing, perhaps it can do some non-file-based caching or it can push for content delivery."

This will also become more practical as Microsoft starts allowing customers to build Windows servers with only the components they need. This will allow you to strip out some of the functionality that you don't need or components that may pose a security issue or administrative problem, Skorupa says.

Take this a little further, however, and maybe you don't need that Windows or Linux server at all. WOCs (WAN Optimisation Controllers) are mostly built using off-the-shelf, PC-based platforms, because vendors lack the money for dedicated, optimised hardware platforms. At the central site, the WOC might be integrated into the application-delivery controller. At the branch office end it could be built right into the branch office router as a blade, and could conceivably take over DNS, DHCP, and print services, as well as caching, and TCP optimisation. The result is a dumbed-down, server-less branch office and a battle between former allies.

"You may see Cisco, Juniper, and HP competing with Microsoft, IBM and Sun for control of the branch office," Skorupa speculates. "Cisco could say, ‘Get rid of your branch office servers, plug this blade in your router, and we'll make the whole thing easier to integrate and manage.'" Sounds a little like the mainframe days, doesn't it?