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Big-name vendors lace gloves, box back at white box servers

Top-tier vendors are speaking up, hoping to compete with bare-bones white box servers that are increasingly popular with cloud service providers.

White box servers have found a sweet spot in the data centers of service providers, but more traditional offerings are fighting to claim their own turf. 

Seeking to avoid a "white out" in the service provider market, top-tier vendors are newly energized to capitalize on their worldwide support and service network to one-up the growing popularity of original design manufacturer, or white box, servers.

So-called white box servers have taken off in recent years, growing to a third of all server shipments in North America during one quarter in 2015, according to Dell'Oro Group Inc.

These stripped-down, low-cost servers are increasingly popular with service providers -- many of them not quite hyperscale companies -- but may not be a great fit for all of them. Some may be looking for a brand name on the outside, or at least the global service and support that comes from big-name vendors, such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Dell, said Gina Longoria, senior server analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy in Austin, Texas.

"Some of these customers [who] have gone to the lower-cost providers may have gotten burned," she said.

HPE hopes there is a role for top-tier vendors to do the job that's been increasingly filled by white box servers, using an open infrastructure. The company is more vocal in pitching the value beyond its platform: its global service footprint, reference architecture and financial services, said John Gromala, senior director of hyperscale product management at HPE.

"Either the experience wasn't good [with white box servers], or they didn't get all the capabilities out of it," he said.

A year ago, HPE launched its Cloudline servers in partnership with Foxconn Technology Group. And this week, they added a multinode, high-density storage server offering, the CL5200. Its bare iron, white box-like compute with "feature-matching" is designed to store large amounts of data using object storage, with a low cost per gigabyte squarely targeting prices from existing white box server makers. The CL5200 also has 80 large form factor hard drives, with up to 640 TB of storage in a 4U chassis -- a bump up from its previous storage server, CL2200, with 72 TB of storage.  

"A lot of these cloud providers have been looking for greater density," Gromala said.

It comes with either Proliant or Apollo servers, and can become part of Helion or OpenStack, configured with open infrastructure hardware, Gromala said. Proliant are industry-standard servers, and Apollo is for high-performance computing and big data workloads, he said.

HPE also is extending its partnership with Scality, beyond using Scality's RING software with HPE's Apollo 4000 and ProLiant servers, to include the CL5200 -- a wise move, according to Christian Perry, principal analyst and practice manager at Technology Business Research (TBR) in Hampton, N.H.

"This is precisely the market where HPE can move forward with object storage, because it has the server technology that already fits in," he said. "By blending Cloudline with Scality's RING object storage, HPE can bring the total infrastructure package to service providers, rather than delivering servers and no storage, or servers with traditional storage that still presents challenges."

Service providers are attracted to RING's resilience, performance and low latency, he said.

The open infrastructure allows the CL5200 to be part of Facebook's Open Rack platform and Microsoft's Open CloudServer platform, Gromola said.

The CL5200 has been shipped "in volume" privately to a small number of customers already, Gromola said, and is now generally available. HPE has not released specific pricing information.

Dell takes its aim

Meanwhile, Dell's Datacenter Scalable Solutions (DSS) division, which launched last year, offers products to a similar set of customers who are large, but fall short of hyperscale. DSS was later folded into its new Extreme Scale Infrastructure group, which also includes Dell's hyperscale products through what had been known as the Data Center Solutions group.

Much like HPE's Cloudline offerings, Dell's DSS line includes a storage server, the DSS 7000, and taps into its enterprise customer portfolio, support network and supply chain to combat the growing popularity of white box vendors.

"It's too early to tell which one is going to be the lead horse here," Longoria said.

The sales, support and management tools from HPE could be a draw for many service provider buyers, said Richard Fichera, vice president and principal infrastructure and operations analyst at Forrester Research.

"It is a big box full of disks and a few servers," he said about the CL5200.

Fichera said he hasn't heard about any customers left with a sour taste from white box servers, but the market is ripe and it makes sense for companies, such as HPE, to have products that match up well.

Some service providers, Fichera said, may have even made some white box purchases simply as a "shot across the bow" of top-tier vendors, such as HPE, hoping to get the upper hand in price negotiations. For service providers that may buy 10,000 servers for $20 million, it makes sense to buy $100,000 worth of white box servers to put on the data center floor, so it is seen by HPE sales representatives, Fichera said.

Dell's entry into the "cost-optimized server" market last year shows there is still a sizeable market for data center hardware, even as it changes.

"There's a really a big market there for cloud services and [software as a service] providers," he said.

Many of the Web-scale companies, from No. 10 to 100 and smaller, need the support offered by big-name vendors.

"They generally need some sort of enterprise relationship for servers and support," he said.

Servers such as the CL5200 and the Datacenter Scalable Solutions from Dell, which have been rolled into Dell's Extreme Scale Infrastructure, are now a good fit for buyers of 100 to 1,000 servers, and even those looking for a few dozen clusters, Fichera said. That helps top-tier vendors ward off an incursion from white box manufacturers, he said.

"It's a fine line to slice a little bit of cost out of these servers," he said.

Large service providers need scalable infrastructure that grows seamlessly with their businesses, and not just on the server side, TBR's Perry said.

Enterprises have experienced some issues managing large volumes of data with traditional storage architecture and service providers -- often working on a petabyte scale -- find storage management growing unwieldy very quickly, resulting in customers delays.

"The situation gets rough, particularly when competition is deep," Perry said. "HPE's Cloudline CL5200 is an apt response to a rapidly growing market that's facing a wide range of IT challenges."

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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