High End Servers—the Software Differentiator

Some may argue that given the recent tumult in the high end server market there is no high end server available today that can match the IBM zEnterprise (z196/zBX combo) in processing power, reliability, and scalability. It holds its own in terms of speeds and feeds, number of cores, memory. Software, however, may turn out to be the biggest differentiator for high end servers, and IBM has optimized a ton of software for its platforms, something the others mainly just talk about.

The high end server market has suddenly entered a period of change. In March Oracle announced that will no longer support Itanium processors. HP immediately countered with a statement of support for Itanium. SGI announced a 256-core Xeon Windows system. Also in March, Quanta Computer, a Chinese operation, reported squeezing 512 cores into a pizza box server running the Tilera multi-core processor.  Tilera’s roadmap goes out to 2013 when it expects to pack 200 cores onto a processor.  Of course, IBM launched the first hybrid server, the zEnterprise consisting of the multi-core z196 coupled with the zBX last summer.

This recent flurry of server activity at the large-scale, multi-core end of the market leaves server buyers somewhat confused. One wrote to BottomlineIT: What will be the ultimate retail price per core?  What’s the current price per core of, perhaps, a chassis full of 8-core IBM System p blades, an HP Superdome, or an SGI UV 1000 running Windows or Linux?

Fair questions, for sure. The published OEM price last year was $900 per chip for a 64-core Tilera processor, which rounds to $14 per core. SGI reports that the Altix UV starts at $50,000 with Microsoft software an additional $2,999 per four sockets (32 cores). A buyer could end up facing different vendors and technologies competing at the $50, $100, $500, $1000, $5,000 and $10,000 per core price points. Each vendor will be promoting a different architecture, configuration, memory optimization, performance, and even form factor (multi u, pizza box, blades) attributes.

This is not just about price but integration, internal communication speeds, optimization, and more. At this point all the vendors need to be more forthcoming and transparent.

But this may not turn out to be a hardware, processor, memory, speeds and feeds battle. It may not even turn into a price-per-core battle or a total cost of ownership (TCO) vs. total cost of acquisition (TCA) battle. Ultimately, it has to come down to workloads supported and delivered, and that means software. And when it comes to workload optimization and software IBM already has an advantage, especially when compared to Oracle and HP. Remember when Oracle bought Sun CEO Larry Ellison said it would optimize Oracle software for SPARC? Have you seen much yet?

A quick peek at IBM’s software lineup suggests the company has a lot of topnotch software to run on its hardware, most of it optimized for its hardware platforms.  Factor in the ISV ecosystem and the IBM picture gets even better.

Let’s start with Gartner naming IBM the worldwide market share leader overall in the application infrastructure and middleware software segment.  If you drill down into the various submarkets, IBM often comes up as leader there too. For example, IBM leads the business process management (BPM) market, with better than double the share of its closest competitor. IBM also leads in the message oriented middleware market, the transaction processing monitor market, and the combined markets for Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) and integration appliances.

Critical segments for sure, but businesses need more. For that IBM offers DB2, a powerful enterprise database management system that can rival Oracle. WebSphere goes far beyond being just an application server; it encompasses a wide range of functionality including portals and commerce. With Rational, IBM can cover the entire application development lifecycle, and with Lotus IBM nails down communication and collaboration. And don’t forget Cognos, a powerful BI tool, plus all the IBM Smart Analytics tools. Finally, IBM provides the Tivoli product set to manage systems and storage.

The point: when it comes to high end servers it is not just about processor cores. It’s about systems optimized for the software you need to run your workloads.



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