Battle of the Server Vendors: Do Buyers Notice?

Tuesday Apr 12th 2011 by Drew Robb
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Despite massive PR, server vendors’ competing claims about power efficiency may be merely confusing buyers.

Not so long ago, data center managers and facilities managers were worlds apart. They met, of course, but neither had to worry too much about the other’s operations. Those carefree days are now long gone.

To some data center mangers, it seems like they are turning more and more into a facility head. The only matters they seem to hear about are power, cooling and floor space problems.

A new report by Gabriel Consulting Group (GCG) of Beaverton, OR, indicates that the biggest concerns these days are overall electrical capacity, closely followed by a lack of data center floor space. And they don’t expect to see any light at the end of the tunnel any time soon.

Close to three quarters of the respondents expect facilities concerns to become an even larger purchasing decision factor in the coming year.

“More than half of respondents in our survey indicate that data center facilities (power, cooling and floor space) heavily influence their server choices,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at GCG. “Given the massive growth in IT infrastructures over the last 20 years, it’s easy to see how IT facilities consumption has become a large line item on the expense side of the ledger.”

Instead of their former separation, the survey found that many data center managers and facilities managers now work in a much closer partnership. Unlike the old days when electricity was simply taken for granted, more than half of data center managers have become financially responsible for their use of energy and the amount of real estate they take up. This, said Olds, puts the onus on them to minimize expenses through better IT management and more efficient equipment.

Bill Moran, an analyst with Ptak, Noel and Associates, says that the rise in importance in power and cooling is helping stage a revival in mainframe computing. Pronounced dead many times, the mainframe has been holding its own in recent years and is currently undergoing something of an upsurge. Reason: the mainframe can bring about a big saving in energy costs.

“You can consolidate lots of Linux instances into one large mainframe which takes up far less space than a comparable collection of Windows servers,’ said Moran.

“Consolidation onto the mainframe can drive significant drops in power and cooling bills.”

Vendor Differentiation?

Not surprisingly, all the big server vendors are placing heavy emphasis on the energy efficiency, compactness and power monitoring of their latest gear. All the big OEMs are constantly promoting such innovations as chips that use less far energy, form factors that take up less room, and virtualization technologies that eliminate vast banks of aging equipment, thereby shrinking the data center footprint.

Despite major PR and marketing campaign, though, such messaging is largely falling on deaf ears. Users don’t seem to believe that any one vendor is better in this arena than the competition.

“Users really don’t see a clear leader in terms of system energy efficiency,” said Olds.

The answer ‘no difference between vendors,’ actually garnered three times more votes than the highest scoring of the server OEMs, which was HP. The GCG survey found that when you tallied ‘No Difference’ with ‘Not Sure,’ you ended up with 61% of the overall total with regards to energy efficiency.

Nor do users see any clear leader on when it comes to system density. Close to 60% of respondents said there was no difference in vendor offerings in this area, or that they didn’t know which vendor could jam the most systems into the smallest space.

“Every vendor has their own unique power management offering, but none of them has shown the ability to step up and grab the high ground on this feature,” said Olds. “Close to 70% of our survey respondents don’t see any of the vendors assuming the role of facilities leader.”

One Vendors Fits All?

What about the premise that one all-encompassing vendor that offers soup-to-nuts services – like a converged infrastructure to combine data, storage and networking within one server-blade based infrastructure – can slash power, cooling and cabling cost?

Uses don’t seem to give that much credence either, according to GCG.

“Our research clearly shows that customers just don’t see much difference between the major x86 system manufacturers when it comes to energy usage, system density, or the vendor’s ability to maximize facilities usage for their customers,” said Olds. “It’s difficult to make a name for yourself in a certain area when every other vendor is trying to stake out the exact same real estate.”

The survey revealed that more than 60% of users see little, if any, difference in either the energy efficiency or density offered by systems from Dell, HP, IBM or Oracle. Among those who do see any kind of differentiation among the top OEMs, GCG found that HP and IBM tended to lead Dell and 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.

There’s a lot of noise in the industry surrounding these issues, so customers are understandably confused. While these factors are becoming increasingly important in dictating purchasing decisions, 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.”

This is borne out in a parallel field – that of enterprise networking. A recent Gartner study, for example, delved into the approximate costs versus benefits of having an all-Cisco IT setup.

Gartner analyst Mark Fabbi believes that going “all Cisco, all the time” doesn’t work to the customer’s advantage. He questions the common view that you can reduce networking TCO by having only Cisco networking equipment in house.

Barriers Lifting

Meanwhile, GCG sees that the overall efficiency of the data center will become an even more important issue in the future. Thus, the ties between data centers and their facilities management counterparts are likely to become even stronger over time.

“Power, cooling, and floor space consumption are an important factor in purchasing decisions now and will become more important in the future,” said Olds.

In some cases, the duties are also being combined into one overall function. Moran said the big reason is money. As IT plays a greater role in the enterprise, it’s natural that the amount of space needed for the data center would rise.

åBut in many metropolitan areas, it can cost a fortune to buy the space needed to expand computing operations. åIn some cases, bringing in more power to support a mainframe or a huge bank of server blades can be a real problem.

“You can’t always ask the local utility to double your power requirements,” said Moran. “That simply may not be possible in some buildings.”

The consequence is a lot more pressure on CIOs. Ten years back, energy costs didn’t come out of the CIO budget. But Moran said that the days of someone else dealing with energy costs are disappearing. And management is telling those CIOs, much of the time, that they don’t want to pay for a new data center – they have to make do with what they have.

“People care about things that are in their budgets,” said Moran. “CIOs have become very concerned about power and space planning as these areas can rapidly constrain their operations.”

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