A new survey by Gabriel Consulting Group (GCG) of Beaverton, Ore. reveals most IT managers and data center managers echo the sentiments of Rhett Butler at the end of "Gone with the Wind" when it comes to which server vendor they prefer: Frankly, they don't give a damn.
Out of about 200 respondents, only 5 percent are single-vendor shops. Another 23 percent use boxes from two vendors. 32 percent have servers from three vendors, and a further 32 percent have four OEMs represented in their IT department. The remaining 8 percent have servers from five or more vendors.
"Customers aren't standardizing on a particular brand of x86 system," said Dan Olds, principal at GCG. "Only a tiny number of customers have settled on a single x86 system provider, despite every effort by vendors to convince them to do so such as financial inducements, systems management that makes it easier to handle large numbers of servers from a single family, and blade form factors that would tend to yield a bit of vendor lock-in."
This lack of emergence of a clear winner in the x86 server space may well be an indicator of the commoditization of the sector. All vendors use the same AMD and Intel chips, the same RAM and the same disks. Their efforts to simplify management, and otherwise entice users to stick with "Brand X," are clearly falling on deaf ears. Price, it seems, is the key driver.
Based on a wide ranging series of surveys that zeroed in on the many facets of vendor preference, however, there are certain areas where specific OEMs come out on top. Dell (NASDAQ: DELL), for example, scored very well on quality of delivery (i.e., ease of setup, hardware consistency and all-around initial quality). Although it far outscored the others, HP (NYSE: HPQ) came in a respectable second. IBM (NYSE: IBM)and Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) scored poorly in this category, with IBM improving a little compared to last year.
"Users report that the major downside with non-Dell vendors is that their servers require considerable updating and patching before they can be used," said Olds.
According to respondents, HP does the best job in delivering hardware that is tested and conforms to the published system configuration. Oracle and Dell, second and fourth respectively, both increased their scoring considerably in this category.
Oracle notched a win in initial quality over IBM and HP, while IBM is the clear champion when it comes to adherence to standards. IBM and HP tied on the question of which vendor best helps customers streamline IT operations. Oracle won by a mile in helping customers reduce costs the most, a sign that its fully integrated approach is gaining popularity with users - as well as its more aggressive sales approach.
"Since buying Sun, Oracle has been aggressively pitching low-cost hardware deals in a bid to hold and possibly expand the former Sun x86 installed base," said Olds.
As a result, Oracle also won in "Best Overall Value for the Money," stealing the crown from HP - one more sign that Oracle is on the right track. Its unified software/hardware solution strategy handsomely won it the prize for being the best at selling solutions rather than just pushing boxes.
This doesn't yet translate into trust for Oracle. Respondents still see HP as the vendor that best delivers on its sales promises. Sun won that category in the two years previous to Oracle, but its scores have dropped considerably. Oracle will have to work hard to convince IT users that it is a dependable server vendor.
As could be expected, IBM continued to dominate in professional services, while HP's addition of EDS hasn't yet done anything to improve its scoring in this area.
The Best Server OS
How about OS suitability? Dell received the most votes as being the vendor best suited for a Windows solution. A certain history between Oracle and Microsoft shows up in the user responses.
"Not one of our survey respondents felt that Oracle was tops in Windows server capability," said Olds. "It's the first time we've ever seen a complete shut-out on a survey question."
Dell (with HP not too far behind) is regarded as best for Windows. But it's a different story in Linux: IBM won by an open-source mile.
"It isn't that customers think that the other vendors don't support Linux; it's that they seem to most closely associate Linux and 'Linux friendliness' with IBM," said Olds. "The new systems include speedy Nehalem chips and new features, like MAX5 memory drawers and SSDs."
That's probably why IBM came out ahead of the others by a solid margin on performance, winning this category for the third straight year.
x86 Servers Dominate
While loyalty to one server vendor isn't a major trend, the x86 platform itself is. It continues to win the fight against its rivals for mission-critical workloads. Go back to the early 1990s when the concept of enterprise Windows first emerged with the release of Windows NT, and you'll remember few users at that time trusted the company jewels on x86. What a difference two decades make! According to the GCG survey, more than 60 percent of enterprise customers surveyed said that more than half of their x86 workloads are mission-critical.
"More than half said they will increase their mission-critical x86 usage in the coming year," said Olds. "x86 systems are becoming increasingly important in data centers of all sizes."
On the OS front, he noted that the days of Windows-only or Linux-only shops appear to be over. While the survey found Linux is used to some degree by 90 percent of enterprise IT respondents, Windows continues to dominate, despite most data centers being a mix of Windows and Linux.
"Present use of Microsoft Server products is heavy, but customers are divided on whether they'll be increasing or decreasing their usage," said Olds. "While Windows usage in the future looks to be holding steady or growing modestly, we see future Linux use climbing. At the same time, we see interest in Oracles Solaris x64 dropping considerably."
Power, Cooling and Facilities
The survey included a look into the facilities side of the data center. Most respondents indicated that factors such as power, cooling and available floor space exerted a heavy influence on server purchasing decisions.
"The biggest problem these customers face is overall electrical capacity, closely followed by a lack of floor space," said Olds. "Close to three-quarters of the respondents expect facilities concerns to become an even larger purchasing decision factor in the coming year."
As little as 10 years ago, the worlds of facilities and the data center were an ocean apart. Gone are the days when IT managers dealt only with hardware and software, blissfully ignoring power needs or cooling costs. GCG research indicates that more than half of data centers are now financially responsible for their use of energy and real-estate.
And once again, no one vendor came out in front with regard to "green-ness." No OEM came out significantly ahead on power utilization or footprint minimization. Despite vast marketing campaigns touting power reduction schemes and cooling cost benefits, the large majority see little, if any, difference in either the energy efficiency or density offered by systems from Dell, HP, IBM or Oracle.
"Every vendor is telling a story that emphasizes how many of their systems you can cram into a small area and how little juice they sip," said Olds. "It's not going to be easy for any of the major vendors to differentiate themselves due to the rapid pace of development by their competitors."
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).