Serving a storm

The server is a critical part of any IT infrastructure, but making the right choice of server is getting tougher by the minute. ACN looks at the issues.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  January 29, 2006

|~|dsouza200.jpg|~|D’Souza: HP will take on Sun’s argument any time.|~|Servers are a perennial issue for any IT department. Procurement, upgrades, consolidation, migration, management, and even air conditioning are topics with which servers force themselves into the minds of IT managers. And every so often, a vendor comes along and claims it has revolutionised the market. This time it was the turn of Sun, who announced with much fanfare their Sun Fire servers, based around the new Niagara eight-core, 32-thread processor. Coinciding with this release came Sun's new SWaP (Space, Watts and Performance) metric for measuring the efficiency of servers in terms other than processing power. Unsurprisingly, Sun's new servers scored very highly against this metric. Sun's new metric, while slightly gimmicky given its timing, points to two trends in servers. First is the realisation that space and power consumption are becoming increasingly important considerations, especially in regions with high average temperatures such as the Middle East. Second is the fact that servers are becoming increasingly homogenised, especially in the x86 industry standard server (ISS) space, and that IT professionals need new ways to differentiate their products. "This is my daytime nightmare for every single day of my working year; how do you differentiate your product if your customer only chooses to look at specifications in terms of processor speed, frequency, cache, disks, and so on," says Ryan D'Souza, HP Middle East's product manager for ISS. "If you limit yourself to those specifications only, there is no differentiation. It's like buying a car and saying all you need is something with four wheels, something to steer with and an engine under the bonnet, and that's it. Then it doesn't matter whether you go for a Hyundai or a Mercedes." D'Souza says HP is trying to educate server customers as to the differences between vendor offerings, or at least those who wouldn't otherwise look at issues such as the total cost of ownership (TCO). He acknowledges this can be a challenge, but says by looking at issues like management software and ongoing service agreements vendors can start to distinguish themselves from the pack. On the issue of power and space, D'Souza says he will "take on Sun's argument any day" and comments that HP's blade servers offer highly competitive power, density and cooling facilities. Mousallam Chatty, CIO of the Al Yousuf Group in the UAE, is very definite on what an IT manager needs to distinguish between vendor offerings: "Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, is to my mind the only way. If you don't investigate, if you don't research, then you will be lost amongst the advertising and marketing from the vendors." Chatty is forthright about the responsibility of IT managers to do their homework when considering which vendor to go for. Talking about his own experience of replacing his servers two years ago, he says he looked at Sun and another vendor, and considered issues such as the long-term roadmap, the number of processors and operating systems each vendor was trying to support, and service issues. In the end Chatty chose Sun, on the strength of its more cohesive roadmap compared to competitors’. Despite the decline in the number of RISC/UNIX processors available on the market, issues such as a vendor's roadmap are still important, and analysts and vendor salespeople are happy to talk at length about the failings, perceived or otherwise, of the various roadmaps on offer. Sun's marketing manager for the Middle East, Graham Porter, is certainly happy to explain why Intel's high-end Itanium processors don't have a future, being a conflict-of-interest to the firm's core x86 line. But Intel seems quite happy to run both chips together; the vendor's general manager for Saudi Arabia, Ferhad Patel, says there is very little overlap between the processor families, and both represent lucrative markets. He also highlights Itanium's range of operating system options as a big advantage. But Patel does acknowledge power consumption is becoming more important to end users. "I think people are demanding more processing power per Watt now," he says. "But we are delivering this; we'll be releasing dual core Itanium this year, and our roadmap includes multicore in the future as well. And there are currently at least 5,000 applications and tools for Itanium, as well as the Itanium Solutions Alliance, so Itanium is well supported." Sun and Intel are both at great pains to show how supported their current high-end processors are; Sun has recently made both the SPARC processor architecture and the Solaris operating system code available to developers. Some analysts see this as a potentially good way to secure long-term SPARC converts, as universities and other educational establishments are more likely to make use of this open-source resource, possibly making whole generations of students intimately familiar with Sun technology. "The interesting thing I see right now is there's a lot of change in the market, there's a lot of speculation as to where it's going, and we feel we're offering the customer a lot more choice. Our new servers can now compete with ISS boxes on price, and for the Middle East especially we feel they offer a big advantage over other products. Our competitors are only just up to dual core chips, and multicore is a long way off for them," says Sun's Porter. But such talk doesn't seem to ruffle the feathers of people like David Matrenza, enterprise sales manager for Dell Middle East. He remains confident that, despite the protestations of competitors such as Sun, Dell's server offerings are distinct and do offer value for Middle Eastern IT departments. "Dell is number one in America, and we are growing our market share here, and that's not by fluke," says Matrenza. "We work closely with customers, and we see it as a long-term partnership - we want to grow with them. And yes, Dell will never be first out with a product; we prefer to look at the market, look at demands, do our research, and release a mature product."||**||

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