Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HP) is holding its ground as a top vendor in the worldwide server market, but Dell Inc. is a close second.
HP remained the worldwide leader in terms of all server shipments in 2006, with 2,261,074 shipments -- 27.5% of the market share, with Dell following behind, shipping 1,783,445 servers that year -- 21.7% of the market share, according to a Gartner research report released last week.
In today's stagnant server market, analysts say HP's strong software portfolio gives the company a solid position against "volume" sellers like Dell.
"The volume sellers may have to adapt their business model," said Jed Scaramella, research analyst, enterprise server research at IDC. "Those companies that are offering software, like HP, which is looking at the data center holistically, are positioned well."
Numbers aside, users have their own reasons for going with HP over Dell, or vice versa.
Dell has a reputation for being a good choice for price conscious IT managers. The servers are all built to order in accordance with customer specifications, with memory, applications, and is configured and tested for quality before being shipped to the user, preventing installation disasters and saving time.
"A customer can have their server up and running within 15 minutes of receiving it," said Ryan Franks, a senior product manager for Dell's product group.
Dell quality improving
Boston Medical Center is in the process of migrating from HP servers over to Dell.
"We'd been an HP shop for awhile, but we've been back and forth speaking with Dell for a few years, trying out their servers," said Brad Blake, the medical center's director of infrastructure and engineering. "We tried out Dell's 2Us and 4Us, ran our database and some other applications against HP and noticed the Dell servers were running just as good or better than the HPs."
So far, about half of Boston Medical Center's data center is made up of Dell PowerEdge servers -- about 200 in all. The servers run the hospital's critical applications, including email, business functions and managing the hospital's 10,000 plus Internet-enabled medical devices, Blake said.
The migration to Dell started about a year and a half ago. Blake let some Dell servers burn in for about six months to test them out against the HPs it had in house, and the results were impressive enough that Blake decided to convert completely to Dell servers.
"We are saving 40% to 50% (on servers) for similar quality and performance to what we had," Blake said.
Any issues with the servers have been addressed by Dell technicians in a timely and adequate manner, Blake said, and the servers arrived preconfigured to the hospitals needs, ready to rack and plug in on arrival.
On the latter point, the same can't always be said of HP servers.
Dave Leonard, chief technology officer (CTO) with Infocrossing Inc., an IT outsourcer in Leonia, N.J., said he recommends Dell servers to his customers.
"HP equipment comes in lots of little boxes, and it seems to me that the DOA rate is higher with HP than it is with Dell," Leonard said. "We like Dell's acquisition cost, and their ordering and delivery model."
HP recognizes that shipping servers preassembled is a strong selling point for customers, and does preconfigure servers upon request, said Steve Gillaspy, group manager of HP BladeSystem.
"Within the past five years, buying preconfigured servers has become more of the norm at HP. We can preconfigure an entire rack of blades and ship it out to a data center, as can our channel partners," said Gillaspy. "Companies with larger IT departments that are self-sufficient typically don't mind getting the servers in separate pieces. Others want us to do the work for them to save time."
Gillaspy said in some instances, there is no cost for preassembly, but HP does charge for the service "depending on the order."
For those that don't order HP servers preassembled, the possibility of damaging parts during assembly and testing drivers can be time consuming and frustrating, users said.
Rick Vodden, project manager at Bruce Power, a Canadian nuclear generating company, has been using ProLiant servers for "15, 20 years" and has seen his share of dead servers arrive at his shop.
To get around that potential problem, the company turns to their HP reseller for preassembly and application burn-in.
"They put in all the memory, all the cards, drop in the image that we choose," Vodden said. This way, the reseller intercepts any DOA units. Plus, "we get rid of the waste problem."
To HP, or not to HP
Still, HP is the top server vendor in terms of shipments for a reason.
Steve Davidek, a systems administrator for the city of Sparks, Nev., said he has been an HP user for 22 years and stays loyal to the brand, even when the prices are slightly higher than the competition, because of customer service and quality.
"We've stayed with HP over the years to keep consistency, and the support has been awesome," Davidek said, who is also the director of advocacy for Encompass, an HP consumer advocacy group.
Jose Medeiros, a webmaster and SAN/server administrator who has done IT support for companies like Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM, running Dell and HP servers, sees Dell in a positive light but is more of an HP fan.
"Dell is a good value and does cost less. However, I have been using (HP's) ProLiant servers since 1996, when they were Compaq, and in my opinion they have the best RAID controllers. A RAID controller is what makes a PC server a server," Medeiros said.
Douglas Spindler, an independent consultant and president of Pacific IT Professionals, a California-based organization of IT managers, server and network administrators, said he believes HP servers are higher quality than Dell, and said he has seen "more consistency in HP's line of servers over the years."
When asked if there is an advantage of owning a Dell server over an HP, Spindler paused, and laughed.
"You want me to find a plus for using Dell?" On the spot, he couldn't think of any advantages to using Dell, but as suspected, Dell representatives were able to list a few.
For one, lower acquisition cost -- the actual hardware is less expensive than the competition -- and more importantly, the cost of management, or total cost of ownership, said David Lord, a representative for Dell.
"We have a commitment to commonality" Lord said. "What it boils down to is if you know one (Dell), you know them all, so customers don't have to spend time and money retraining system administrators on new products" as they are introduced year to year.
The advantages of buying custom-built Dell servers at low prices had been overshadowed by customer service issues, so much so that frustrated users created a Web site devoted to griping about the company.
Knowing customer support is a driving factor in which server a customer chooses, Dell is investing an incremental $150 million this year on its "customer experience" initiatives and is seeing signs of improvement, according to quarterly results released by the company in November.
"Dell has been in business for 23 years, and there are lessons learned every day. We have gotten really good and making sure the equipment meets expectations," said Daniel Bounds, a senior product manager for Dell.
By increasing the number of customer service agents, average hold times for U.S. customers have been reduced from nine minutes to three minutes in the past year. The company has also reduced call transfers by over 30% and has improved first contact resolution rates by 20%.
Medeiros said he has noticed an improvement in Dell.
"Dell is a good product … they have come a long way since I first used their servers at Intel Online Services back in 1999. I was unhappy with them then," Medeiros said. "They have gotten much better and have improved their firmware and vendor hardware support. Their tech support has also improved much."
Even so, Dell has a formidable competitor in HP and has ground to make up in the race toward the top.
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