Computer Weekly reviews how the main server makers are formulating strategy for the datacentre, and whether any viable alternatives are on the way. Our conclusion: keep an eye on Dell
As the only original datacentre player still in the top league, IBM has impressed analysts with its strategy. When the company recently previewed its latest-generation System Z mainframe, the Z10, it was the first since the release of the Z9 three years ago.
"There is a general recognition of the value of mainframe and enterprise servers," says Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at the Butler Group, and one of the experts who was briefed on this new plank in IBM's datacentre technology. "The mainframe can still be at the centre of IBM's datacentre strategy, but the more fluid parts of its IT offering - the enterprise servers and the X86 servers - can be deployed as commodities where needed."
The new IBM mainframes are a bid to keep a customer base that spends millions of pounds on new systems, loves the old-fashioned resilience and trustworthiness of big Iron, but continue to be tempted by the cheaper, more flexible alternatives.
Mainframes do not crash and are boringly reliable - claims no one could make about servers. And one of IBM's four socket Intel servers costs a fraction of the price, runs faster than the mainframe and comes with cheaper software.
IBM user groups continue to worry about the conflict between distributed systems and mainframes. In a recent survey by IBM user group Share, 23% admitted they were planning to increase usage of their mainframes, and 19% said they would cut back on mainframe reliance or say goodbye to the systems completely.
Since Z9 came out in 2005, IBM has continually tinkered with the platform, making a series of announcements of gradually improved administration. It spent £50m on simplifying the mainframe environment to encourage use of the systems in service-oriented architectures (SOA). But one problem remains - not many young IT experts even know what a mainframe is, let alone how to work with one. To solve this difficulty, IBM is funding training programmes at universities to create a base of available mainframe-trained talent.
Arguably, HP has surpassed IBM as the biggest computer company in the world. Although it prides itself on its engineering culture, HP seems to be heavily reliant on marketing to win attention. The phrase "managing risk" is bandied about a lot in its presentations, possibly in the hope that it will resonate with buyers.
The message from HP is that it wants to deliver more efficiently used assets. "Everything has to be saved now," says Phil Dodsworth, director of HP Datacentre Solutions. That means energy efficiency, power and cooling and lowering operating costs, he adds. "Our strategy is all about managing risk for our clients, and we manage risks through these processes. It's not a silver bullet."
HP sees virtualisation as an important strand in what it wants to deliver - but that is a long way from the full story. "Every other supplier seems to imagine that virtualisation is a cure all for everything," says Dodsworth, "but some applications don't lend themselves to virtualisation at all."
HP's strategy is very much cost-driven rather than technology-led. "That's what our customers have been telling us," says Dodsworth. "It's the cost of the datacentre that is crippling companies, not the strategic advantages that technology can deliver." A case in point is Barclays Bank's new datacentre in Gloucester, where the biggest selling point - smart cooling - is nothing to do with techniques for processing data, but all about power management and keeping bills down.
Illsley says, "HP is engineering-led and one of the biggest computer manufacturers in the world, so it has the capability in our labs to tackle any issue. The fact that they look at energy efficiency, expressed as dynamic smart cooling, intelligent air conditioning and blade designs, tells you what the priorities are these days for HP."
At HP, the acronyms bandied about now do not relate to applications or processing engines - they are more likely to be something like PUE (power usage efficiency).
Dodsworth comments, "Once we measured IT performance by MIPs - now the benchmark is in watts."
Sun's strategy, meanwhile, is best described as a datacentre in a box. The company offers a preconfigured, self-contained datacentre that gives an instant maximum of 1,200 servers and 3.5 petabytes of storage in a network. Sun says it cuts your roll-out time and your electricity bills.
Sun's 20ft Project Blackbox comprises racks of servers and storage in a shipping container. This model is still fairly novel, but could enable companies of all sizes to move their datacentres to the best source of power. There are fewer and fewer places in big cities that have a licence to draw that much power from the national grid, not to mention good bandwidth connections and cooling capacity.
Analysts like the idea, though. Illsley observes, "Big corporations are predominantly based in London, but there's hardly anywhere within the M25 that can cope with the massive drain on the national grid, and then they have to find sufficient floorspace at the right price. There is certainly nowhere like that in the City, so datacentres have to migrate to wherever the capacity is right and there are cooling facilities. In the UK, that could be Scotland."
Sun's system's agility could win it many orders one day. When it has an installation in the UK, we will find out whether its claims for plug-and-play technology stand up. Until then, the idea of an out-of-the-box plug-and-play datacentre sounds rather fanciful.
Sun still offers users the ability to mix and match its servers with other platforms.
Meanwhile, Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) recently unveiled the latest version of its Primergy servers, which it describes as energy-savers for the datacentre.
Like all other suppliers, FSC's strategy for the datacentre primarily concerns energy - giving end-users what they want. But the scalability of its range has impressed analysts, such as Gartner's datacentre analyst, Rakesh Kumar, who insists only newer-generation server technology can provide the flexibility to turn the datacentre into a "living organism".
"New datacentre designs need to be based on flexibility and high levels of monitoring," says Kumar. "They should be perceived less as a static structure and more as an agile living organism that evolves as the server and storage infrastructure changes." He says FSC is doing as much as anyone to make that possible.
The servers use quad-core processors to reduce the load on each chip, in an attempt to bring them up to mainframe reliability levels. Meanwhile, its 2.5in discs use one-fifth less power than traditional 3.5in drives. The only departure from mainframe technology - apart from flexibility - is that the new units came out with Windows Server 2008.
Dieter Herzog, executive vice-president of infrastructure products at FSC, says the company's datacentre strategy around its new Primergy servers dovetails with the new Windows Server 2008. "It's the best way to get higher efficiency, better quality of service and increased agility of IT operations," he adds.
FSC's latest marketing strategy warns IT professionals: "Dump your old server." Its campaign urges companies to upgrade their network infrastructure.
This could reflect its position as something of an also-ran in the server market. Some argue Dell should be in our top four, but FSC retains a high ranking because it is heavily focused on standards, which protects end-users from supplier lock-in. Wasn't that what caused all the trouble for datacentres originally?
According to IDC, Dell was the number three server maker globally in 2007. Not surprisingly, green IT is one of the main factors driving Dell's datacentre computing strategy, says Dr Albert Esser, the company's vice-president of datacentre infrastructure.
"When it comes to ageing datacentres, customers have two options," says Esser. "Neither is good for the environment. They can rip and replace the entire infrastructure or build new facilities."
Dell's strategy is to cater for the uncertainty many investors will experience in the current economic climate. It is gambling that customers will want to be energy efficient by prolonging the life of their datacentres - not replacing them.
Esser talks of revealing a hidden datacentre - within the existing facility - to clients. Dell is banking on the fact that virtualisation will boost overall utilisation and remove the need for current levels of physical computing resources.
Dell's strategy, says Esser, is based on a trinity of issues that drive datacentre computing - virtualisation, consolidation and grid computing. "CIOs should standardise equipment, consolidate servers, storage and applications and automate management. Then you will see a rapid return on grid computing."
Dell has partnered the likes of Oracle, EMC and Intel to create Project MegaGrid, which tries to formulate a single, validated set of deployment best practices for grid computing.
Among the alternatives, Unisys is troubled by financial problems, and its strategy is to shift its servers and storage business from being hardware-centric to an approach encompassing more influences, such as software and services, including virtualisation. Unisys is upgrading its Intel-based server line by adding quad-core processors to its ES3000 servers and releasing an ES5000 series of blade servers.
That other hardware stalwart, Bull, has built a strategy around simplifying the complexities of virtualisation. Its all-in-one virtualisation server was launched in March, aimed at companies that may be daunted by the slog of cutting the number of deployed servers. Its NovaScale VMBox is currently available in two configurations and supports VMware ESX Server 3.5, with the VMware VirtualCenter Foundation management platform hosted on a separate NovaScale server.
But how can Bull simplify virtualisation? Isn't it meant to be complicated?
Its idea is to pre-integrate everything. Along with the servers, it is including storage subsystems, pre-loaded software and Bull's Calypso backup software. These configurations are pre-integrated, which Bull claims enables "faster deployments of infrastructure at a lower cost".