Eye on Blades Blog: Trends in Infrastructure
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Strategic Means Being Steadfast

Today, Cisco announced a new product that leverages network intelligence to provision resources together as virtualized services. This industry-first approach greatly reduces application deployment times, improves overall resource utilization, and offers greater business agility. Further, it includes an open API, and easily integrates with third party management applications, as well as best-of-breed server and storage virtualization offerings.

  

If this sounds like this weeks announcement by Cisco of their new Unified Computing System (UCS) you would be partially correct. The words in the above paragraph are basically the same as what was used this week at their announcement. However, the above words are actually what they used to describe their new VFrame Data Center 1.2 product when they announce it on July 24, 2007.

  

At that time, VFrame DC was touted as a key component for Cisco’s vision of next generation data centers, called Data Center 3.0.

  

However, this week during Cisco’s announcement of their Unified Computing System there was no mention of VFrame Data Center. Instead, they proclaimed that the next step in the Cisco Data Center 3.0 vision is their UCS.

  

No surprise then that it turns out that VFrame was quietly retired in February, less than 20 months after being announced by John Chambers at Cisco Live as a foundational element of Data Center 3.0.

  

So what does this mean to you? Well that brings me back to the title of this entry, “Strategic Means Being Steadfast”.

  

Cisco wants to be your strategic IT partner that you can now trust for all your data center needs. But do trusted partners abandon what they sell as cornerstone technology, with the result of abandoning customers such as you?

  

HP’s answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

  

An example: HP still enhances, still sells and still supports OpenVMS. In addition, OpenVMS is available on HP BladeSystem. Yet this is a product that was introduced in 1977, seven years before Cisco became a company.

  

Something to think about when you choose your strategic trusted IT partner.

  

Mike Kendall

 HP

 

When is choice not choice?

Following on the heels of our virtualization launch last week, Dell made a virtualization announcement of their own yesterday.  They announced a variety of third party products they now support and re-announced the blades servers they introduced last week, but this time referring to their virtualization design.  Curiously they compared their two-socket M805 full-height 16-DIMM blade to our four-socket blades, ignoring our two-socket half-height 16-DIMM ProLiant BL495c virtualization blade announced last week.  I guess comparing their blade against an HP blade that is half the size wouldn't have sounded as good.


But what really caught my  attention was their statement in their press release that their strategy is "grounded in choice".  I imagined how this strategy plays out with blades:


Customer "I'd like to choose a UNIX blade please."
   Dell does not offer this choice.


Customer: "I'd like to choose a storage blade please."
   Dell does not offer this choice.


Customer: "I'd like to choose a workstation blade please."
   Dell does not offer this choice.


Customer: "I'd like to choose a half-height blade with 16 DIMM sockets please."
   Dell does not offer this choice.


Customer: "I'd like to choose a two-servers-in one blade for my grid app please"
   Dell does not offer this choice.


Customer: "I'd like to choose a Non-stop blade" please.
   Okay I could go on, but you get the picture. 


As it turns out a lot of customers want these kids of choices.  Why?  Because a blade everything strategy means they can get the time, energy and cost savings BladeSystem offers for more of their IT infrastructure.  They can have a simpler, more consistent way to deploy, maintain, manage and service their infrastructure.  But here again Dell has clearly differentiated themselves, stating that "We are not blade everything".  I guess this is one choice Dell does not want to offer to customers.

Games vendors play . . . with power efficiency claims

These days, server power efficiency is top of mind for everyone.  Five years ago, most customers had no idea how much power a server used.  Now, everyone knows - it's a lot.  In some cases, customers are making power consumption the primary criteria for vendor selection. 


So why is it so dang hard to get a straight story on exactly what options are the most power efficient?

secrets

In our experiences with power measurements, we found lots of ways to the results get skewed; whether intentionally or accidentally. We honestly try to avoid them, but here are some of the dirty little secrets a lot of vendors don't want you to know about their power testing results.  Consider these red flags next time someone spends lots of money in the Wall Street Journal to post a big claim with lots of fine print on power savings.


Lab Queens


One easy way for vendors to skew power results is to cherry-pick low power components.  Processors (even those in the same power grade) and memory DIMMs tend to consume significant power and can have wide variances in power consumed from one part to another. 


We call units built by cherry-picking components "Lab Queens".


Generally, these do not represent what a customer might actually be able to purchase.  Here's an example where we tried to avoid this scenario; the systems compared on this competitive power report on our website uses the exact same processors and DIMMs on all units tested, thereby eliminating differences due to component variances.  It would have been easy to create a Lab Queen and bump the results higher, artificially.


Configuration Errors


Peak power efficiency for a given system always requires the "best" configuration.  Memory power is mostly a function of DIMM count, and not capacity.  Therefore, to achieve minimum power, the minimum number of DIMMs should be used to realize the desired memory capacity. 


If you see a comparison where the DIMM count is different or not mentioned, you might notice the strong odor of dead fish. 


On the infrastructure side of the equation, a blade system can be configured with varying numbers of fans and power supplies.  Obviously some configurations will produce better power efficiency than others.  For instance, 4 power supplies run more efficiently than 6, assuming that 2+2 power redundancy delivers adequate power for a given configuration.  The most power efficient configurations though won't always be generated by a competitor when publishing a comparison.  Honestly, there are such big differences here that an apple to apple comparison is tough.  Only an HP BladeSystem dynamically throttles fan speeds based on demand across the different cooling zones in an enclosure.


Environmental Differences


The voltage level and room temperature can cause variances in the power supply efficiencies and the speed the system fans must run.  Consequently it is important that when comparing servers to verify that these parameters are held constant.  I once heard a story of an engineer setting up a box fan to blow air on his servers to try to reduce the fan power of the blades. 


Obviously he wasn't planning on counting the power from the box fan! 


Remarkably, there are published benchmarks that allow for external cooling to be deployed and not counted as a part of the system power.


Gaming the Benchmark


Any benchmark a vendor publishes is necessarily narrow in what it measures.  When looking at a published benchmark, you should consider how close the benchmark mimics your applications.  If the benchmark is similar to your applications, the results might be relevant to you.  If not, then you might do best just to ignore them.  Also, some benchmarks are very loose on configuration requirements, making it very easy to "game them" and making the results all but totally useless.  One benchmark that is broadly published in the industry falls into this category.


Where to go from here?


At this point, you are probably thinking "Wow! This is much more complicated than I really thought!"  And you are right.  Benchmarking fairly is very tricky business, even if you are trying to be fair.   The best results you can get are the ones you measure yourself.  In my next blog post, I'll comment on some of the techniques and challenges with measuring power yourself. 

The numbers don’t lie. Customers aren’t stupid

There are a lot of materials available to customers and partners around the competitive strengths and weaknesses of the major players in the blade market. Lots of claims, lots of counter-claims, YouTube videos, podcasts, press releases, full-page ads, web banners, reports and the list goes on and on and on.  If you listened to what Dell and IBM say about HP BladeSystem, you'd think we haven't sold one.  In fact, I think they talk more about HP than their own solutions.


Taking a step back, do customers make their decision based on this kind of marketing?


It may get a mention or a thought during the evaluation process but there are usually 3 or 4 bigger factors that influence a sale: the relationship between the customer and an account manager, one who can listen to their needs and then deliver the right solution at the right price, supported by a proven service and support structure.  These are just a few. 


Wow, so all the competitive attacks in the world won’t change their minds?  That's right, customers aren’t stupid. In fact, they are quite savvy with regard to competitive claims. 


The numbers don’t lie.

Blades Unit Market Share; IDC server tracker Q1 2008 Q1 2008 Blade Unit Market Share   

The latest IDC report shows that HP is the clear market leader and sold twice as many blades as IBM and over 5 times as many as Dell. The businesses buying HP BladeSystems probably saw the right solution rather than just another box with check marks on features. 


Here's a thought: maybe our technology isn't just 2x or 5x better, maybe our sales people are twice as good as IBM and 5 times better then Dell, and as for our service and support perhaps we can claim to instill that level of confidence over our competitors?

It may be a stretch but whatever way you look at it, there is no doubt it’s a great time to choose the HP BladeSystem...despite all the noise surrounding the blades market.   
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