Hardware Today: Midyear Server Scorecard

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jun 19, 2006

Longer days and rising temps mean summer is approaching, and with summer comes the end of the second quarter and the first half of the year.

Dual-core chips, x86 volume servers, and blades are the hot products in today's server rooms.

Thus far, it's been a mixed year in the server marketplace. Research firm IDC reports that unit shipments are up, but revenue is down for the second consecutive quarter. Volume servers represent the main area of growth, but even this area is slowing. Midrange and high-end systems, however, continue to decline.

"After three years of consistent growth, the server market began to show signs of deceleration in the first quarter," says Matt Eastwood, an analyst at IDC. "IT executives are focusing on condensing their IT infrastructure so they can deliver new IT services and enhance existing service levels while holding the line with respect to both IT budgets and staffing levels."

Not surprisingly, Microsoft-based servers fueled the expansion in the volume server space, (although Linux is experiencing strong growth). IDC tallied Windows servers at $4.4 billion in the first quarter of 2006. Windows servers generate 37.1 percent of all server revenue and represent the largest single segment of the server market. With Dell's jump onto the Opteron bandwagon in mid-May, all of the major OEMs now offer x86 servers running both AMD and Intel processors.

"The x86 server portion of the market continues to be the strongest segment," says Gartner analyst Jeffrey Hewitt. "x86 servers remain the leading server choice for meeting ongoing Web-related growth, while other segments have started the year in a less-positive mode."

These machines range from 1U general-purpose models to high-performance servers with a hefty price tag. Unisys, for example, introduced the ES7000/600 Series, which supports Xeon MP with Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T) processors. This series supports up to 32 processors.

"Our ES7000 server is the ideal platform for clients who have applications or databases that require large memory addressability," says Mark Feverston, vice president of ES7000 Servers at Unisys.

Sun Microsystems has also become a player in the x86 sector. As it uses only 64-bit processors, it calls this its x64 server line. According to Fadi Azhari, director of outbound marketing for Sun's Scalable Systems Group, some of the hottest new start-ups are building their IT infrastructure on Sun. The social networking site Ning, for example, calculated the cost of running x64 servers with the Solaris 10 operating system to be less than half the cost of running Linux on Intel platforms.

Not surprisingly, Sun has big plans for its non-SPARC machines.

"Sun is broadening its x64 server product line," says Azhari. "This will include the addition of a 16-way (8 socket) x64 server this year."

But SPARC/Solaris remains the heart of Sun. Azhari lists an impressive roster of releases from the past few months. In February, the systems vendor released UltraSPARC Architecture 2005 and HyperVisor API specifications to encourage the porting of Linux, BSD, and other operating systems, middleware, and applications to the UltraSPARC T1 processor. It followed up in March with the publication of the hardware design point and Solaris 10 Operating System porting specifications.

"Developers now have access to the chip multithreading [CMT] technology unique to the UltraSPARC T1 processor, which is released under the OSI-compliant GNU General Public License [GPL]," says Azhari.

Despite a big focus on Unix innovation by Sun and IBM in particular, IDC reports Unix servers experienced a 7.1 percent decline in factory revenue year over year, while unit shipments declined 8.7 percent compared with 1Q05. This still represents $3.9 billion for the quarter, or a 33.2 percent overall market share, but the x86 is extending its lead.

No Dulling of Blades

While most aspects of the server market are slow, that certainly can't be said about blades. Gartner expects blades to occupy close to 20 percent of server real estate in the data center by 2010. Meanwhile, IDC notes a 43.4 percent revenue growth in the first quarter of 2006 compared to first-quarter 2005 for blades, with shipments increasing 29.5 percent. That equates to about 5 percent of quarterly server market revenue.

Here, like elsewhere in the server room, IBM and HP dominate, with a combined 75 percent share of the pie. Both offer impressive rosters of blade servers. Dell, too, with 11 percent of the market, has an ever-expanding line of blades.

But despite the rest of the pack having only the remaining 14 percent to fight over, the non-IBM, -HP, and -Dell space is surprisingly active. Some of these companies are finding a niche with large-socket or high-performance blades.

Fujitsu, for example extended its blade offerings to include 4- and 8-socket servers. It now has Intel Xeon- and AMD Opteron-based single, dual, and quad blades.

"Fujitsu Opteron blades are now able to scale to eight sockets," says Graham Kelly, Fujitsu's director of enterprise product marketing, "thus allowing a 16-core blade server with dual-core Opteron processors."

Kelly reports that the Xeon-powered mono blades are usually seen in IP-centric areas, such as Apache, WebSphere, and WebLogic. The dual CPU blades, on the other hand, are better suited to small data-moving environments like Sybase, Oracle, or Exchange instances. And the newer Opteron dual and quad blades, he says, tend to be placed in more compute-intensive environments, particularly in financial and health care verticals.

"All our blades will be adopting newer Intel and AMD dual-core processors in the next months and will receive more, larger and faster memory DIMM's," Kelly says. "In addition, the industry-wide adoption of serial-attached disks will become more intrusive in the blade space at Fujitsu."

Likewise, SGI has introduced a blade model into its Altix server series. Jill Matzke, marketing manager of high-performance computing at SGI, characterizes the Altix 4700 server as a revolutionary blade form factor.

"This new platform was introduced to address the increasing performance demands of our high-end computing customers, including emerging and growing concerns about performance density and power efficiency," she says. "The innovative blade design takes the density advantages of traditional blade servers a step further by introducing modular computing resources in a dense blade form factor."

As a result, individual resources can be reconfigured, expanded, upgraded, or serviced as needs arise. In addition, says Matzke, it offers socket compatibility with the next two upcoming generations of Intel Itanium 2 processors.

"We are seeing a continuation of the migration from 1-socket blades to 2 and 4 socket," says IDC analyst Kelly Quinn. "Increasingly, customers are seeing the business value in blades and identifying how useful 2- and 4-socket blade servers can be in the consolidation of their existing IT activities as well as in support of new IT workloads."

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