Hardware Today — Whitebox Servers Rev Up

Tuesday Sep 7th 2004 by Ben Freeman
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Whitebox systems are often less expensive than their branded counterparts and thus offer a way for organizations to harness more power for less money. But is going generic always the best route?

Whitebox servers may be one of the worst-kept-secret value propositions of the server world. While the big-name vendors get the bulk of the fame and glory, the lesser-known whitebox vendors have been slogging along offering equal computing power at a lower price point.

Whitebox servers are non-branded systems built from generic components. Like branded systems, they are sold through VARs; unlike branded systems, support for them is often limited. Whitebox system have played a role in the desktop market for some time. They are now reaching critical mass in the server market.

IDC's second-quarter 2004 server statistics attribute 86.2 percent of server sales to the Big Five (IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems, Dell, and Fujitsu/FSC, in that order); the remaining 13.8 percent of sales come primarily from unnamed whitebox vendors lumped together and classified as "Other." The Other category is no small potatoes: Were it a single vendor, Other would outsell Sun for third place in market share overall.

IDC sees the whitebox market on the ascent. A report published in January 2004 argues that whitebox servers, "continue to prosper below the radar of the companies that dominate the field," and "buyers continue to purchase these non-branded systems with the belief that they are getting more, not less, for their money." Such growth comes mainly from the entry server Market — servers priced less than $25,000. IDC's confidence in the whitebox server market extends back to 2002 when it noted that whitebox servers meet the "good enough" mentality of commodity servers.

On their Marks ...

In the hopes of building on the success of whitebox PCs, such vendors have shifted their focus to server offerings. Mike Beyersdoerfer, manager of component products for Ingram Micro, a company that coordinates and supplies components for value-added resellers (VARs), has high hopes whitebox servers. "Whitebox desktops are becoming mainstream, and likewise there is a migration to the whitebox, so the next logical step is toward the server," he said. As proof of this penetration, Beyersdoerfer cites an IDC survey that found 31 percent of the 35 million desktop PCs sold in the United States in 2003 came from whitebox vendors.

For Beyersdoerfer, the chief benefits of whitebox servers are flexibility and control over components. Ingram Micro can provide whatever x86 processor, memory, storage, fans, or chassis brands a VAR chooses. The name brand vendors, on the other hand, offer a more limited palette of components based on economies of scale. "Ultimately there are just a lot more options out there than branded servers," he said.

Ingram Micro is seeing an increased demand for server-grade chassis and components from solution providers and system integrators. "Whitebox servers allow systems integrators to customize systems according to the specifications of their particular business," Beyersdoerfer said. This build-to-order mentality is well-suited to SMBs, where whitebox servers are often a cozy fit.

Although choice is inherent with going the whitebox route, a common concern with whitebox systems is over leaving the protective standardized embrace of bigger vendors. This is, for the most part, unfounded. Whitebox options are generally within industry standard norms: x86 is the architecture of choice, and reputable VARs maintain clear hardware standards. "When servicing a large account with many seats, standardization helps make servicing that account easier and more manageable," Beyersdoerfer noted.

In the VAR support model, a good distributor will help ease the transition whiteward. In Ingram Micro's case, this means providing component-level tech support directly to the VAR from the time it begins assembling the system through the sales process and beyond. If a VAR runs into support snags with a customer, for example, Ingram Micro will step in to assist.

>> Deciding to Go Whitebox

Get Set ...

Standardization does not rule out specialization, however. In whitebox arena, the lack of brand tie-in often lends itself to easy customization. For example, the "IT in a Box" solution from EmergeCore, enables SMBs without IS organizations to custom build servers. EmergeCore President and CEO Dave Brown cites "ease of use" as the server's strongest selling point.

"There's no software to install and limited technical experience is required to set up or run [these servers]," Brown said. EmergeCore's custom Linux-based CoreVista product abstracts server management to the level of a browser-based GUI. "Most users of the IT in a Box don't realize they're using a Linux product at all," Brown said.

More bang for the buck is perhaps the biggest selling point for whitebox vendors. The 15-inch fanless IT-100, for example, features an x86 Transmeta Crusoe TM5600 533 MHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, a four-port hub, a wireless 802.11g access point, a 20 GB hard drive, and the CoreVista operating system, a customized abstracted Linux-based operating system — for $1,395. The IT-100 is designed to function as an edge server (i.e., as a Web, proxy, VPN, or file sharing server), and is aimed at the "small business owner, home office user, and the corporate telecommuter."

For about $1,000 more, an organization can purchase the more robust IT-500. The x86-alternative 733-MHz VIA processor, which is known for its low-power consumption, drives the $2,450 system. It also boasts 256 MB of SDRAM, a 16 port hub, a wireless 802.11g access point, and a WAN 10/100 MB Ethernet uplink. It, too, is CoreVista based.

Brown noted that this ease of use does not mean lock-in. "The IT in a Box is completely plug and play, but the setup options offer complete customization," via the box's custom GUI, Brown said, "For example, some companies decide to have the IT-100 host their network and to provide a VPN but decide not to host their own Web site."

Go

In general, whitebox systems provide an inexpensive and flexible way to meet entry-level computing needs. They are a legitimate and less expensive alternative to brand name commodity servers. However, enterprises looking for high-end scalable servers should evaluate their purchase from many angles and not immediately rule out paying extra for the insurance of totally standardized hardware, robust support, and vendor viability that comes with branded servers.

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