When we look back at 2007, it is doubtful the year will be viewed as a marquee one for hardware. Sure, quad-core came into its own. But not much more can be said about it.
"As a vendor that is routinely exposed to long-range component supplier roadmaps, not much changed from a hardware perspective," said Jay Bretzmann, worldwide marketing manager for System x at IBM (Armonk, N.Y.). "The delayed availability of AMD's Barcelona processors, however, was unexpected."
Vic Berger, a technology specialist at CDW (Vernon Hills, Ill.), concurred.
"All in all, the market moved at a predictable pace and with few surprises or dramatic leaps in innovation," he said. "Most of the surprises in 2007 were on the negative side of development and adoption."
So what can we look forward to in the year ahead? Not much of a ground-shattering nature, it appears, at least from a hardware perspective. IBM's Bretzmann predicts increasing acceptance of x86-based servers for enterprise application serving roles, and more widespread adoption of virtualization technology. However, he thinks multi-core processor technology will reach the point where it exhausts the thread-level parallelism of all but the top-tier of ISV applications predominantly databases and ERP code.
"We expect to see a broadening of the choices in hypervisor technology as Microsoft launches its next-generation virtual server solution, and Xen-based implementations collect more user experience," he said. "We also believe there's tremendous potential for server-based client consolidation using both shared services technology and virtualized desktops."
The benefits, he noted, range from significant IT labor savings, to better regulatory compliance, to dramatic reductions in power consumption.
"The sales cycles here tend to be long, but once a customer adopts virtual clients, the growth prospects are strong," said Bretzmann. "Next year could be a double-digit growth year for x86-based servers."
Virtualization is also a force that CDW's Berger said he expects to see strengthen. He calls blade servers the kings of the virtualized world.
"We may see a dramatic increase in the use and capabilities of virtualization," he said. "Several upstart companies are positioning themselves to deliver virtualization solutions, and major industry players are also creating or enhancing their virtualization portfolio."
As a result, Berger said he thinks hardware virtualization may finally hit its stride with the addition of new offerings to the lineup.
"The benefits and cost savings of virtualization, combined with the inherent disaster recovery capabilities of virtualized hardware and software, have reduced the ROI for single core infrastructures to a negligible margin," said Berger. "Multisite, disaster-ready, micro data centers with full remote management capability will start to overtake the move to large consolidated data centers."
The increase in virtualization deployments is supported by a survey of 297 enterprise users of x86 system just conducted by Gabriel Consulting Group (GCG) of Beaverton, Ore. It found that 63 percent of respondents are either testing or already using virtualization on at least some portion of their x86 servers.
"About half believe that the virtualized usage model will become prevalent in their organization," said Dan Olds, principal analyst at GCG.
This trend will cause a sea change in server buying habits. According to GCG, more than half of the respondents said they expect to purchase fewer, but larger, x86 systems in the future. Almost half of the participants indicated they will be buying fewer single-socket servers, and only 8 percent plan to purchase more.
On the other side of the coin, about 75 percent plan to continue or increase their purchases of multi-processor servers, and 75 percent plan to purchase dual-socket systems in the near future. In addition, 72 percent said quad-socket systems are in their near-term plans, and 64 percent indicate they will be purchasing or are strongly considering greater-than-four-socket x86 servers in the near future.
"The advance of x86 virtualization is certainly a major reason why customers are looking for larger servers," said Olds. "When customers virtualize, they can reduce both the costs and complexity in their IT operations by eliminating small, underutilized systems but they need larger systems in order to get the most benefit from virtualization."
Dark and Green
There is a dark side to virtualization, however. While it improves the utilization of server compute horsepower, it negatively impacts power and cooling.
"The adoption of virtualization by data center professionals has a potentially negative effect on the capability of existing power and cooling systems," said Carl Cottuli, vice president of the Data Center Science Center at American Power Conversion (APC; West Kingston, R.I.). "A virtualized data center needs to be able to support the dynamic heat loads on demand."
This is backed by findings from the GCG survey. According to Olds, 55 percent of respondents said power and floor space concerns heavily influence their server purchases. Data center floor space seems to be the most critical issue of all 42 percent of respondents are rapidly running out. Meanwhile, 30 percent report that they are rapidly running out of electrical capacity, and nearly one-third said that cooling capacity has become a major concern. These concerns show no sign of abating, as 65 percent agreed that these considerations will become much more important in the future.
"We were a bit surprised by the large number of customers who said they are hitting the wall on electrical and cooling capacity and even more surprised to see that more than 40 percent of them are running out of data center space," said Olds. "Vendors are pushing hard to bring more efficient servers to market or to at least position their current offerings as 'greener' than the other guys."
Power and cooling efficiency, though, are only one aspect of a much larger trend. While it was obviously present in 2007, expect the greening of the data center to become a dominant theme in 2008.
"I would expect the most dominant trend next year for the data center industry will be to drive adoption of green efficient methodologies into new and existing facilities," said Cottuli.
This trend has server OEMs scrambling to gain the advantage. Although each has released power, cooling and greening initiatives, it is still the early days yet, and no one has the clear advantage. The GCG survey, however, revealed that HP (Palo Alto, Calif.) and IBM are a little ahead of competitors in terms of how well their systems used energy and data center floor space. But Olds said he doesn't see this as a definitive sign that these vendors will win the green wars.
"Although either HP or IBM won every category, there was still a large number (30 percent to 40 percent) of respondents who couldn't pick a clear leader in any category," said Olds. "This tells me that there is still a lot of room for any of these four major vendors to carve out a 'we're the greenest' position in the market. However, they'll need to develop solid technology and measurement methodologies in order to rise above the industry noise surrounding these topics."