RISC to x86 Server Migration Buyer's Guide

by Drew Robb

As UNIX- and RISC-based servers lose ground to x86, should you consider making the switch? Is it the beginning of the end for UNIX servers?

Things just don't look good for the RISC/UNIX camp according to recent numbers from IDC.

The UNIX server space experienced a 23.4 percent decline in revenue in third-quarter 2009, compared to the same quarter in 2008. Granted, x86 also fell during the same period — but only by 12.3 percent.

Now that the fourth-quarter figures are out, the UNIX drop is 18.1 percent year-over-year. That adds up to worldwide UNIX revenues of $3.9 billion for the quarter, representing 29.9 percent of the total server spend — down from 36.2 percent in 4Q08. In comparison, x86 grew 12.6 percent in the same quarter to $7.3 billion.

IDC surmises this may have something to do with customers waiting for more clarity on the Sun-Oracle server roadmap. But current trends look bleak for the RISC brigade.

"In 2009, x86 servers captured more than 55 percent of all server revenue and more than 96 percent of all server units shipped worldwide," said Dan Harrington, an analyst at IDC. "This represents a continuation of the aggressive share gains that x86 technology has enjoyed over the last five years."

He made the point that the fourth quarter is normally the strongest for non-x86 machines — they have never held less than 50 percent revenue share in that period until now, when they dropped to 43 percent. IDC expects this trend to continue, as users became more cost-conscious than ever in 2010. They are now looking to x86 servers for relief from capital and operational expenditures, said Harrington.

Is the End Approaching for Unix?

Is x86 growing at the expense of UNIX, and does this signal the end for the platform? Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) certainly thinks so. The logic is as follows: As customers begin to refresh their data centers, Dell believes x86 server platforms will continue to gain share at the expense of UNIX/RISC deployments. x86 server platforms have evolved and can handle the most demanding computing environments, from mission-critical database applications to the most complex HPC solutions.

In anticipation, Dell has put a series of UNIX/RISC migration programs in place to help users move their workloads to x86.

The company reported x86 server revenue growth of 26 percent in the fourth quarter. Sally Stevens, vice president of Server Engineering at Dell, cited an IDC Server Workload Analysis from 2000 to 2008 that showed x86 server growth for mission-critical business processing and decision support applications grew 595 percent and 203 percent respectively.

"We continue to see this trend taking shape as customers become increasingly reliant on x86 solutions for business-critical applications, the area of emphasis for UNIX vendors," said Stevens.

Stevens is also touting the upcoming introduction of Intel’s Westmere and Nehalem EX offerings, which offer further performance, reliability and scalability boosts. Accordingly, she is bullish about x86 to the point where she doesn't really see the need for RISC/UNIX anymore.

"Westmere and Nehalem EX processors will virtually eliminate any perceived advantage UNIX solutions have," said Stevens. "This will provide increased performance, energy efficiency and virtualization capabilities, allowing the x86-based server market to continue moving up the computing stack and giving customers a great opportunity to replace their aging UNIX deployments."

Stevens noted virtualization is another catalyst driving x86 adoption. Virtualization, she said, makes application workload consolidation a compelling opportunity, especially when combined with lower-cost x86 servers. This allows customers higher use rates from consolidating workloads to more powerful servers, better application performance, and a lower cost on price/performance for that same workload. One example is the support of Sun Solaris as a guest OS in VMware VSphere. The user can continue to leverage his investment in the OS while consolidating RISC platforms. This, she said, results in reduced operating expenses and lower capital costs.

Who's Leaving RISC?

So who exactly is migrating what off RISC? Stevens mentions ERP, decision support and database applications as showing a strong trend toward x86 — areas where UNIX has long dominated. Salesforce.com, for example, recently pulled the plug on using Sun UNIX servers in favor of Dell PowerEdge servers.

She conceded, however, that not everyone is in a hurry to offload RISC. When you calculate the cost of staying on RISC/UNIX compared to the migration costs and the time required to switch over to an x86 architecture, it doesn't always come out in favor of a move.

"Some businesses have substantial in-house resources that have expertise in the UNIX platforms and the applications, and the migration could cause considerable upheaval," said Stevens.

It is important to note that wholesale RISC-to-x86 migrations typically take several years. Therefore, it is best to start with older, obsolete systems or those running low-risk applications, and gradually roll out the hardware fleet as RISC servers age or come off maintenance contracts.

Dell has put in place a number of UNIX migration programs to help customers make the transition. The first decision, said Stevens, is to select the applications that will be migrated. A migration readiness assessment on all UNIX applications is next. This is used to set priorities and sequences.

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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).

This article was originally published on Thursday Mar 4th 2010
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