Proprietary servers keep losing ground

When bf goodrich spun off its performance materials division in February 2001, it created a $US1 billion specialty chemical company that found itself supporting multiple server platforms better-suited for a $5 billion corporation. First on the new company’s to-do list was to revamp its server hardware.

The spinoff discovered that multiple proprietary systems from companies such as Compaq and Sun Microsystems were draining support and maintenance resources.

“We didn’t have a staff that could support so many platforms,” says Todd Nelson, vice president of global IT at Goodrich spinoff Noveon.

“So we did an infrastructure roadmap last year to figure out where we want to be and how are we going to get there. We created a roadmap of standardisation, server consolidation and bringing [database] servers under control.”

That meant scrapping the proprietary RISC-based servers and moving onto Intel-based servers from Dell.

Analysts expect more businesses to make similar shifts as the performance of x86-based servers, which run on industry-standard chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), improves. This can offer stepped-up processing power and scalability at prices below RISC-based boxes.

Today, more than 90 per cent of servers that cost $US25,000 or less are based on Intel chips, and analysts expect Intel also to become more widely used in mid-range servers. Giga Information Group predicts that within five years, Intel-based platforms running Linux and Microsoft operating systems will “take at least half of the market share currently owned by RISC/Unix”.

A number of factors are helping push the trend, not the least of which is the tough economy that is forcing companies to look for ways to save money while maintaining performance. Intel is feeding into that desire by investing heavily in its chips, and earlier this year rolled out new and improved Xeon MP and Itanium 2 processors.

In addition, operating systems from Linux and Microsoft, which run on x86, continue to mature and virtualisation software for Intel-based machines from companies such as VMware increases the flexibility of Intel-based boxes.

Further, a wider array of applications that are available for x86 vs proprietary systems, and the fact that competition is pushing prices of x86 servers down and their performance and scalability up, makes them an increasingly viable option.

Server shipments reflect the expected shift, with Unix/RISC-based server shipments dropping as the number of Intel-based boxes sold rises. According to IDC, spending on x86 servers represented 37 per cent of the market in 2001, but accounted for 44 per cent of spending in the first quarter of this year. About half of all money spent on servers in 2001 went for RISC-based boxes, which accounted for just 43 per cent of spending in the first quarter of 2003.

“X86, or industry-standard servers based on Intel or AMD (chips), have been gaining in the last couple of years,” says Mark Melenovsky, research director for IDC’s global enterprise server solutions and Internet infrastructure hardware programs.

He says in today’s economy companies might be reluctant to migrate from existing platforms because of costs associated with such moves. IDC has consulted with users looking to move off proprietary systems onto standard platforms, but Melenovsky wouldn’t say what kinds of costs are involved, only that costs are variable.

“There are a lot of upfront costs associated with migrating from one server platform to another: all your applications and services and training that go along with that,” he says. “But we’re anticipating that when spending picks up in the market, we’ll start seeing more growth in industry-standard server platforms.”

Not that some companies aren’t making the move today. Noveon, for example, decided that maintaining an infrastructure of “mismatched boxes” would be more costly than making the migration to standardise.

“[The migration] is definitely not inexpensive . . . but we needed to right our infrastructure foundation and make sure that we were running on a platform that we could support and manage and keep our costs down,” Noveon’s Nelson says.

Nelson wouldn’t specify how much the move is costing upfront, but says he expects to slash hardware costs by about 20 per cent once the migration is complete next year.

NYFIX, a financial trading systems company, isn’t yet ready to rip out its Sun-based infrastructure, but it’s deploying new applications on Intel-based blades from IBM.

John Knuff, vice president of network engineering for the firm, says he expects to cut hardware costs in half and improve performance by running a new client-facing application on the industry-standard IBM hardware rather than on proprietary Sun systems.

“Instead of putting customers on a small number of Sun platforms, we decided to give each client a pair of servers that are dedicated on a client-by-client basis,” he says. “With IBM blades running Linux it made it a very cost-effective move.”

The price/performance benefits of the industry-standard x86 systems are a big draw. And it’s a trend that vendors are seeing all too clearly. Sun saw computer systems revenue drop 16 per cent this fiscal year in large part because of declines in the Unix market. It rolled out two Intel-based servers with the hope that it could fill out its product offerings to attract customers looking for industry-standard systems.

Even HP, which has laid out plans to scrap its proprietary PA-RISC and Alpha systems in favour of Intel-based products, took a hit in its mid-range and low-end Unix server business in its third quarter as users gravitated to lower-priced industry-standard servers.

“The flexibility and performance of servers based on industry-standard processors like Xeon and Itanium have really forced the suppliers of proprietary products to lower their prices, and in many cases even lowering their prices hasn’t helped,” says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64.

A key benefit of industry standard, or x86-based, systems, he says, is that users are not committed to a specific vendor, nor are they limited in their choice of operating systems or applications.

“With any of the product lines built on proprietary processors — Sun Sparc, IBM Power, Hewlett-Packard PA-RISC and Alpha — once the customer made the decision to use systems based on those chips, then the customer was virtually locked into that supplier,” Brookwood says. “And fundamentally, the choice of a processor locked you into the choice of an operating system — Solaris, AIX or HP-UX — and a vendor. . . . Also, the range of software choices tended to be more constrained.” In the end, the move to standard systems will result in more flexibility in corporate data centres, analysts say.

“When you get right down to it I think what the x86 and for that matter the Linux movement are all about is giving customers more choices,” Brookwood says. w

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