Wintel servers gain favor in cloud era, putting RISC at risk

Wintel servers have become the darling of the data center, pushing RISC systems out of favor. But the server hardware battle isn't winner takes all.

As IT professionals retool their data centers to accommodate more sophisticated cloud computing environments, many lean toward a scale-out strategy built on Wintel server hardware, steering away from proprietary, scale-up servers.

This means trouble for Hewlett Packard Co. (HP) and IBM's RISC-based systems -- as both companies are working to reinvent their server roadmaps.

The primary reasons driving IT pros toward Wintel are costs, both upfront and hidden, and the risk of moving to a new platform and dealing with a new vendor that a data center team may not be familiar with.

So we thought, 'Do we really want to run our business on Intel going forward?
Nigel FortlageVP, GHY International

"We looked at other [proprietary systems] and the cost of their hardware was significantly more expensive than what we had," said David Chivers, vice president and chief information officer of VSE Corp., a federal contractor in Alexandria, Va., and who remained with Wintel servers when he started up a new data center. "We felt we weren't getting as much bang for the buck."

Even some data centers with significant investments in proprietary servers and associated applications tools have shown more willingness to migrate workloads to lower-cost servers with Intel Corp.'s chips.

"I had some IBM and [HP] servers that I threw versions of Linux on, which helped reduce some of the overall cost. But to make them work with other non-RISC platforms, I had to do more than a little programming on my end, and I didn't want to spend the time and money doing that after a while," said one IT systems administrator who requested anonymity.

What is also making the decision to migrate to, or stick with, Wintel servers easier is the improvements in the power and speed of Intel's chips, particularly the Xeon processor. These improvements have helped level the playing field against its proprietary competitors, said Christian Perry, senior analyst at Hampton, N.H.-based Technology Business Research Inc.

"One game changer affecting the [Unix] market is Intel's Xeon chip. We saw it with Itanium and now IBM is being impacted," Perry said. "Users that previously looked to Power to satisfy certain workload requirements, for instance, now have more choices on the x86 side."

The significant revenue drop in IBM's Power Systems "must be scary to IBM," Perry said, although he doesn't see them abandoning the product any time soon. He believes the company's decision to supplant Unix with Linux as the systems' primary operating system is a smart move, one that should preserve its existing user base and enhance its competiveness against Wintel servers.

Observing this trend, Dell acquired Clerity Solutions last year, a company specializing in modernizing and re-hosting legacy products and services onto industry-standard platforms. Dell executives believe Intel-based servers can now scale up enough to handle more complex workloads in cloud computing environments.

"We continue to find a steady stream of users re-platforming onto x86-based servers," said Brian Payne, executive director of PowerEdge product management at Dell. "It is being driven by the fact that the economics are better and the top-end capabilities of x86-based platforms continue to improve. It is now becoming more viable for users." The growing preference among data centers for Wintel servers is one reason sales of proprietary systems have been down this year. IBM reported that sales of its Power line of servers were down 25% and 38% in this year's second and third quarters respectively, compared to the same periods last year.

HP earlier this month threw in the towel on its Itanium processor, which has strong technical ties to its proprietary PA-RISC processor, saying it will port most of the NonStop platform -- deemed its most mission-critical server offering -- to the x86 platform.

In a report on server unit shipments in this year's second quarter, Gartner Inc. described the overall global server market as weak, noting that x86 servers had a unit increase of 4.5%, while RISC/Itanium Unix server units declined by 27.4%.

IBM, HP work to reinvent RISC servers

The stalled sales of proprietary servers is not from a lack of trying on the part of companies such as IBM and HP, each of whom has plowed an enormous amount of research and development dollars into their respective platforms. Earlier this year, IBM delivered the latest server as part of its Power on Linux initiative, which runs the company's Watson computing technology. The company claimed the new system has enough muscle to adequately run very large amounts of big data and analytics workloads, as well as the next generation of Java applications designed for open cloud environments.

IBM and HP executives have long argued that the scale-up approach offered by their respective RISC-based servers has significant technology and business benefits to new and existing data centers. By eliminating dozens of Wintel servers with a single IBM Power server, organizations can save significant compute and energy costs, as well as better manage many of the available resources across the breadth of a large data center.

One such believer is Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technology and social business leader for GHY International, based in Winnipeg, Canada, who migrated some 11 years ago from Intel-based platforms to IBM's proprietary servers -- and he hasn't looked back. He said the combination of IBM's server hardware and Linux has withstood any and all new workloads thrown at it, allowing the company the flexibility to grow its business.

"We migrated to IBM systems back in 2002, and along the way started using Linux just to try it out," Fortlage said. "Well, it just worked, and it was easy and less expensive. So we thought, 'Do we really want to run our business on Intel going forward?' And we said, 'No.'"

Some analysts also can see the upside to the argument offered by proprietary vendors about the long-term technology and costs benefits of their servers.

"With high-density servers like [IBM's] Power Systems and [HP's]Moonshot, it's technically feasible to get more power into smaller form factors that save space and keep people in their existing data centers, side-stepping the expense of having to build another," said Jean Bozman, research vice president in IDC's Enterprise Server Group.

But the server-hardware battle being waged in the data center will hardly be a winner-takes-all proposition between Wintel and RISC-based systems. Bozman said the industry is on the verge of an era where several different server architectures will each carve out their own profitable niche, including servers based on the ARM processor.

Data center executives will need more flexibility in how they expand the capabilities of their organizations, and therefore will need specialized servers to accommodate different capabilities, she said.

"Users will incrementally grow out their data centers. So if they need to specifically run a data warehouse or analytics, they will buy servers tuned just for that workload and have it packaged with storage, systems management and software also tuned just for that task," Bozman said.

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