10 Server Hardware Highlights of 2010

Tuesday Dec 21st 2010 by Drew Robb
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From Oracle's acquisition of Sun to Cisco releasing blade servers to SSDs going mainstream, 2010 was an eventful year for server hardware. Revisit the 10 most notable milestones.

From Oracle's acquisition of Sun to Cisco releasing servers to SSDs going mainstream, 2010 was an eventful year for server hardware. Here are the 10 most notable milestones.

1. Oracle Arrives in the Server World

Oracle bought Sun in January 2010, and then maintained radio silence for an uncomfortably long time. So it was a relief to see the fuss Larry Ellison paid to hardware at Oracle OpenWorld. Ellison devoted half his keynote to a server -- the Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud, which is a combination of software, servers, storage and networking that acts as an engine to run Java and other business applications. It consists of up to 30 64-bit Intel multi-core processor-based servers, an InfiniBand-based I/O fabric (running at 40 Gb/sec), 40 TB of SAN disk, 1 TB of solid state drives (SSD) and 3 TB of memory.

"This Exalogic Elastic Cloud is hardware and software, engineered to work together -- a cloud in a box," said Ellison. "This is by far the fastest machine for running Java applications."

2. Big Box Appliances

Oracle Exadata 2, Oracle Exalogic, EMC Greenplum and more made 2010 the year of the big box appliance. Undoubtedly there are more to come.

"We saw the proliferation and return of bundled solutions such as server, storage, hardware and software stacks aligned to virtualization, databases and other functions," said Greg Schulz, an analyst at StorageIO Group.

3. SSD Replaces Memory, Not Disk

In 2009, all the talk was about SSD (or flash) replacing disk. While this still comes into the picture, what is emerging is flash replacing (or augmenting) memory in many applications. This trend also plays into the economics of SSD. Compared to disk, flash is a lot more expensive. Compared to memory, however, it is cheap.

Violin Memory, for example, has released vCACHE, which uses a combo of RAM and flash memory to deliver up to a 15 TB capacity cache to boost performance. It integrates Network File System (NFS) caching software from Gear6 with scalable Flash Memory Array technology from Violin Memory as a complement to servers and network attached storage (NAS). It centralizes massive pools of memory to serve data up to 50 times faster than disk.

"Flash memory solutions, such as vCACHE, that enable IT managers to integrate higher performance solid state storage quickly and efficiently, are poised to make significant inroads," said Jeff Janukowicz, an analyst at IDC.

4. VMware Continues to Soar

Attending this year's VMworld was an eye opener. For starters, the 25,000 attendees far outstripped the 400 attendees at its initial show in 2004. All the major server and storage vendors were in attendance, with most of them issuing press releases saying how they were more virtual than their competitors. It is obvious that virtualization continues to be the darling of the server space; there are no signs its popularity is flagging or competitors are gaining ground.

"VMware has become a focal point for server and storage vendors," said Schulz.

5. Would You Like a Chinese Server?

A few years back, China surprised the world by entering the laptop mainstream when Lenovo purchased ThinkPad from IBM. Shortly thereafter, Lenovo introduced some servers.

The latest move is for China to become a supercomputing champion. Tianhe-1A at the National Supercomputer Center in China just claimed the HPC crown form Top500.org based upon Nvidia graphics processing units (GPUs) as well as Intel Xeon 5600 series processors and a proprietary interconnect. Another Chinese system called Nebulae sits at No. 3 on the list.

The word out of China is that a whole lot of innovation went into these systems, and it is soon going to be commercialized and unveiled to the west. Bubbling under the surface are budding rivals in the storage, server and networking spaces. China, in other words, has the potential to fundamentally shake up the IT marketplace in short order.

6. EMC Goes x86

HP abandoned RISC processors five or so years ago. Now it is EMC's turn. The company has gone x86 -- all EMC disk arrays come with Intel processors. While Symmetrix DMX and previous-generation Symmetrix systems were based on PowerPC chips, the latest generation of EMC products, such as the Symmetrix V-Max, harnesses Xeon processors.

"We are getting phenomenal performance out of x86," said EMC chairman Joe Tucci. "The V-Max is by far the fastest Symmetrix platform we have ever made."

7. Cisco the Server Vendor

If rumors are correct, some of the Chinese thunder is going to rain on Cisco's networking parade real soon. Apparently, a Chinese startup is quietly gobbling up network market share. So it is perhaps just as well that Cisco diversified again in late 2009 with the release of its first server blades. The Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) has made a modest entrance into the blade marketplace, but is gaining kudos from users.

"Cisco put forward a compelling convergence and virtualization message via UCS," said Jules Thomas, IT manager of trucking company Pitt Ohio Express. "This facilitated the move to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) and reduced our backup times considerably."

8. HP Leads in Revenues and Units

HP continues to lead over IBM in both revenue and units shipped. After being neck and neck for a while, it has had three consecutive quarters of dominance. The company scored 33.4 percent revenue share for 3Q10 according to IDC, up 22.2 percent year over year. Much of that growth came from HP ProLiant servers, which are x86-based, and HP owns 40 percent of that sector.

"Within the x86 server market, customer demands have increased for x86 servers with advanced performance capabilities," said Reuben Miller, an analyst at IDC. "Though the x86 market is experiencing annual positive growth for both unit sales and revenue, this shift in demand for more robust systems is providing vendors with higher growth rates in revenues over units sales, and in turn, higher profitability."

9. x86 Alternative

While multi-core systems from AMD and Intel continue to gain ground, IBM is in no mood to throw in the towel with its Power line of processors. 2010 saw the release of the latest Power model along with a refresh of its Power systems with the new chip.

POWER7 technology supports four times as many processor cores as prior systems, and it uses the latest PowerVM virtualization software to enable users to run more than 1,000 virtual servers on a single physical system.

According to Jeff Howard, director of marketing at IBM Power Systems, this is tempting customers onto the platform. He said IBM Power Systems achieved more than 250 competitive migrations in 2Q10, including 150 from Oracle/Sun and 86 from HP, resulting in approximately $225 million in revenue. In the first three quarters of this year, IBM had more than 750 competitive migrations, more than it did in all of 2009.

10. IBM Dominates Unix

IBM continues to rule the roost when it comes to the $14 billion UNIX market, according to IDC. For 2Q10, IBM achieved 42.8 percent share, which is an increase of 2 percent. Further, IDC reports that IBM is the only major UNIX vendor to gain share in the past five years. During that period, it has gained 13 percent while HP and Sun each lost 3 percent.

Clearly, IBM's strategy in this area is working far better than those of its competitors.

"IBM is committed to the AIX, i and Linux platforms on Power," said Jeff Howard, director of marketing at IBM Power Systems. "This year, IBM introduced new versions of the i operating system, i 7.1, and a new version of AIX, IBM's UNIX operating system."

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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