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Hardware Today: Rafting on White Box Rapids

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Sep 6, 2005


Shakespeare's Juliet may have pondered "What's in a name" and come to the conclusion "a rose by any other name smells just as sweet," but servers are not roses. Market leaders, such as IBM and HP, have spent decades and billions of dollars establishing their territory and promoting their brand names. And, according to IDC, these vendors dominate the market. IDC analyst David Daoud says that looking at the x86 server sales, the top 10 vendors accounted for 83 percent of worldwide units shipped in the second quarter of this year, and 78.3 percent of U.S. sales.

Going white box will usually deliver more bang for your buck, but knowing the terrain is critical. When is it appropriate to go with a white box vendor, and what should one look for when doing so?

"The best way to assess the white box market is to remove the top 10 vendors," he says. "Once you get beyond No. 10 [India's HOC Infosystems, which sold 5,000 servers in 2Q 2005] the names are unrecognizable, mostly local players or builders."

Nevertheless, white box vendors do make up a healthy market: 258,000 units shipped in the second quarter, up from 251,000 in the same quarter last year. There was, however, a slight decline in market share.

Thus, going white box is an option most enterprises should consider. But when is it appropriate to go with a white box vendor, and what should an enterprise look for when doing so?

Getting Custom

To many customers, the primary reason for considering a white box server is to cut down on the costs.

"Because of the market we service — enterprise accounts — we generally lead with a Tier One provider, such as [one from] IBM or Hewlett-Packard," says David Hall, senior vice president and CTO for Dallas, Texas-based systems integrator and outsourcer CompuCom Systems. "A white box solution would come into play if a client has a very limited budget."

White box vendors do make up a healthy market: 258,000 units shipped in the second quarter, up from 251,000 in the same quarter last year. There was, however, a slight decline in market share.

A white box solution may also be viable for less-critical applications or situations where there is enough redundancy to make up for any shortcomings in the equipment. ViaWest Internet Services, a managed hosting and collocation firm headquartered in Denver with six data centers in four states, uses white box servers for some of its internal operations.

"We use white box solutions for services where we are going to have redundancy available, such as for one of five servers in a SMTP server solution," says ViaWest's Manager of Hosted Production, Chang Kim. "Our experience has been positive for the most part with the white box solutions we have used."

The other frequent driver is whether the box must be custom-designed to meet a particular need. In cases where the customer is buying a packaged solution rather than just a piece of hardware, the organization is relying more on the expertise of the software firm or integrator than the name on the server box.

Systems integrator DTR Business Systems in Walnut, Calif., for example, builds custom boxes for SCO and other software vendors. The boxes are built to the ISV's specifications, and the software is preloaded and configured before being shipped out to the client.

Area Electronics Systems in Placentia, Calif. offers custom builds for ISVs, but they are based on 15 different basic platforms.

"We offer our customers a mix of standardization and customization," says Area's President William Huang. "The Tier One companies go for the largest portion of the market, so they standardize on a limited number of specifications and they can cut costs. Sometimes we offer the same platform as the Tier Ones, so we can leverage the cost savings, but we offer more variety. They are not general-purpose servers."

Area offers Intel and AMD processors; Kingston memory; scaleable CPUs, drive bays and PCI slots; and ATA and SCSI storage. Although Area sells directly to some enterprises, like DTR, its main customers are integrators and software vendors.

"Our VARs have a great relationship with their local customers," says Huang. "They tell us what they need, and then they sell the solution package to the customer."

Holding the Standard

The potential drawback, however, to using a white box vendor is that the hardware might not be built to a consistent set of standards. This can cause problems, particularly for large enterprises.

"Generally, the companies that go for white box servers are smaller in size and not overly concerned about the standards they are keeping," says Hall. "With our larger clients, standards are very important, and that is hard to control in a white box environment."

He notes that the support costs from trying to maintain too many platforms can often overcome the cost advantage of purchasing a white box.

The other frequent driver is whether the box must be custom-designed to meet a particular need. In cases where the customer is buying a packaged solution rather than just a piece of hardware, the organization is relying more on the expertise of the software firm or integrator than the name on the server box.

"The day-to-day support costs are not much different between a white box and a Tier One vendor," he says. "But when you have an environment with more than a few servers, it can be costly to support a variety of different platforms."

To better ensure white boxes are up to standard, Intel began a program last summer. Known as the Intel Enterprise Server Acceleration Alliance (ESAA), independent hardware vendors (IHVs) and independent software vendors (ISVs) can pre-certify white boxes. But the white box vendors themselves are also working to ensure their products are standardized.

DTR has standardized by using only Intel components.

"We run a complete Intel brand system inside and out — motherboards, CPUs, chipsets," says DTR Vice President of Operations Jeff Crotteau. "We stay consistent to the specifications of the ISV so that if they order that system this month and the same one next month they get the same components. But if they were to order the servers from a company like Dell, they may not get the same motherboard or other components from one order to the next."

Similarly, once Area develops a platform, it retains the same specifications.

"Maintaining consistency is the magic word," says Huang. "Once a customer settles on a set of chipsets and drivers, the customer knows for the next 12 to 18 months there will be no change."

Selecting a Vendor

Although DTR and Area both use name-brand components, not all white box vendors do. Any apparent savings, therefore, may be offset by inferior reliability or performance. ViaWest's Kim advises checking into the components that go inside the box, not the name on it.

"As long as you are able to build in or acquire a box with a highly rated motherboard, you have the basis for building a more robust system than some of the name brand servers," he says. "Always try to get the MTBF [mean time between failures] data on different components and select the right hard drives, CPUs, memory, and RAID cards. It is generally one of those components that will fail before the box will."

He also recommends test driving the equipment. The white box vendor should provide the servers for a trial period, during which time the enterprise can load applications and compare performance in the environment where it will be put to use. While this will sort out many potential problems, it will not completely eliminate failures.

"You are going to have failure in any system, whether it is white box or name brand," he says. "In some cases we have seen name brand devices fail before white box servers that we have had in production for longer periods of time."

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