Eye on Blades Blog: Trends in Infrastructure
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IDC: Right numbers, wrong words

I read a clip from IDC guy Dan Harrington explaining why he thought the economic downturn crimped x86 server deployments more than Unix server deployments.  "It's easier to freeze purchases on x86 , which are a commodity at this point," he said.
 
Easier to delay x86 deployment?  Sounds right.   But x86 server = commodity?  Hardly.


Clustering was supposed to commoditize x86 servers.   Then it was utility computing.  Then virtualization.  Then the cloud. Ten years ago, I bought into the Commodity Theory.  Whitebox servers would soon be king of the data center.   x86 is x86, right?   Everyone would soon be slapping Tyan and Asus motherboards into off-the-shelf ATX chassis. 


But that's not what happened.  In fact, the percentage of people using whitebox servers has actually dropped.  A lot.  IDC still predicts more whiteboxes, but their latest full-year estimates (2008) say that whiteboxes make up about 10% of servers deployed today -- down from about 14% five years ago, and something like half of what it was a decade ago.   Server admins have actually been gravitating away from them and toward "fancy" servers from HP, IBM, and Dell. 


Why?  Well, one reason is that the price tags on an entry-level HP or Dell x86 servers have dropped a lot, to the point that assembling your own servers won't save you money.   But lowered cost != commodity.


Clustering, virtualization, and cloud computing actually do better when run on servers that have a few decidedly non-whitebox-style features:



  • OS and ISV certifications

  • Plug-ins and APIs for mainstream management tools

  • Big, knowledgeable user communities who've developed best-practices

  • Around-the-globe support, and "one throat to choke" when issues arise.

  • Automated deployment tools, power capping, and other things that lower operations costs (which can dwarf acquisition costs).


There does seem to be a growing interest in bare-bones servers.  Stuff like the ProLiant SL series and IBM's iDataPlex exemplify this trend.  But these aren't general-purpose servers, and they come with some of those key non-commodity features.

From #HPTF: Pondering the HP POD

I found the HP POD to be one of the most compelling demo areas at this weeks' HP Technology Forum. Being able to emerse yourself in the POD and touch and feel what it takes to deploy and support 3000 or more systems is amazing.  Every detail has to be thought through: the airflow, the power and backup, redundancy, security of the container, the cooling, networking, serviceability and on and on.  All integrated on an impressive scale.


Here is a presentation we put together about the HP POD from the show floor.  We call it the "plain English" version.


It was interesting to see and hear the reactions of different customers to the prospect of a POD-enabled future.  My first thought was "cool!".  But, more than once I overheard the word "scary".  It turns out, that it wasn't a negative comment but more of a feeling of nostaligic dread that comes with technological change.  Kind of like when parents think of their children growing up in a Twitter-connected world.  It may or may not be bad, but the prospect is, well, "scary" but the perspective of the parent and the child are radically different.   The role of the POD in the data center of the future has some big implications.  Good or bad is a matter of perspective. 


Those that called the POD scary said the ultra-efficient, lights-out capability of the POD raises the bar for everyone.  When you see PUE's of less than 1.25, and power densities in the 20+kW range, you realize where we all are headed.  The days of racking and stacking taking up a big portion of your week are coming to an end.   One guy was even worried about spending his whole day inside of POD.  I think he was missing the point of lights-out,  you shouldn't need to go inside the POD any more than you need to crawl around inside a server all day long.  Some day, will anyone ever go inside the data center again?   Will you be at the same site as your systems? Will it be designed for humans at all?


I didn't have a chance to speak with any CIO-types, but I wonder if they'd have a different point of view, one more oriented to the macroeconomics of the data center.  The CIO's perspective on the POD would likely be of CapEx and OpEx, not wondering how you get all the cables in the rack.  At the end of the day, IT is simply a combination of services need to support and enable the business. The IT infrastructure is the simply the capacity needed to deliver those services.   When you think that way, why would you spend resources doing in yourself.  If you need the services of transportation, you buy a car.  Building your own from scratch just doesn't make good economic sense.  


Any CIO's out there today?  What are your thoughts?  We'd love to hear them.

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