Server Farming

Dec 3 2008   5:42PM GMT

Server sales suffer on economy, virtualization; vendors branching out

Bridget Botelho Profile: Bridget Botelho

With the U.S. economy in a recession, world economies suffering and virtualization adoption on the rise, it comes as no surprise that factory revenue in the x86 worldwide server market declined 5.2% year over year to $12.6 billion in the third quarter of 2008 (3Q08), according to the IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker released December 3.

In fact, this is the largest quarterly revenue decline for servers since the fourth quarter of 2002, and the sluggish server unit shipment growth of 2.8% year over year in 3Q08 represented the slowest increase in server shipments since 4Q06, the IDC reported.

“The x86 server segment was definitely impacted by the economic downturn; there was significant deceleration in the quarter with a particular weakness in September,” said Jed Scaramella, IDC Senior Research Analyst, Servers. “Due to the uncertainty in the market, customers cut back on all nonessential spending.”

Volume systems revenue declined 7.2% year over year in the third quarter, the first decline for this market segment in more than 14 quarters, and revenue for mid-range enterprise servers declined 9.5% year over year. Shipment growth also slowed significantly for x86 servers to 4.0% (1.97 million units) because of a low demand, and revenue declined 6.6% year over year in 3Q08, representing the largest year-over-year decline for the segment in more than 24 quarters, IDC reported.

The IDC didn’t mention this in their release today, but it is obvious that virtualization is partly to blame the slowing demand for commodity x86 servers because it increases server utilization.  According to Tom Bittman, VP and distinguished analyst with Gartner, virtualization has penetrated 12% of the market, and the number of VMs deployed doubles every year. “By 2012, we expect more than half x86 workloads will be run on VMs,” Bittman said in an interview about his presentation on the virtualization market for Gartner’s 27th annual Data Center Conference this week.

“Virtualization and cloud computing have screwed up the market; vendors used to compete in compute islands, they were all direct competitors, but now they fight for control of an entire virtual layer. IBM and HP are competing in broad server technologies, instead of HP and IBM competing only in the area of server hardware,” Bittman said. “All vendors worry about becoming commodities and they all want to be considered the brains of the industry”

Perhaps that concern, along with slow server sales, is why vendors including HP, Dell and Sun have branched out into the area of data center services this year that could add a revenue stream beyond selling hardware. HP acquired EYP Mission Critical Facilities about a year ago and began offering data center services in March. Just this week, Dell announced it would offer services to help people extend the life of their data centers. Before that, Sun announced data center services that include data wiping.

But, there were exceptions to the grim server market numbers; revenue for high-end enterprise servers grew 4.0% year over year, the third consecutive quarter of growth for the segment. Other exceptions to the slowdown were blade servers (11% of the market) and IBM System z (9.4% of the market), which both increased this quarter, IDC reported.

Scaramella said IBM System Z sales didn’t suffer because they tend to be cyclical and are built into companies long-term budgets, which is not always the case for the smaller x86 systems. “Customer are more likely to push out [x86] purchases and see what they can do without,” he said.

And blades were the only platform to experience positive growth in the quarter, with all major vendors exhibiting double-digit growth in blade volumes, IDC reported.

I’m no analyst, but I am guessing the demand for blades didn’t slow down along with other x86 servers because today’s blades are pitched as ideal virtualization platforms. The HP ProLiant BL495c virtualization blade, for instance, is one of many new blades designed with more memory, data storage and network connections to meet the needs of memory and I/O-hungry VMs.

In addition to their appeal as a virtualization platform, blade servers are desirable because they take up very little space in cramped data centers and many blade surpass rack servers in power and efficiency.

So, it will be interesting to see whether server sales recover when the world economies improve, or if they remain depressed due to the increasing use of virtualization.

The IDC is predicting this slowdown to continue throughout most of 2009, but server sales will rebound with the economy, Scaramella said. “We are not anticipating a quick rebound [but] I do not think we will see the same extreme fall-off the market experienced after the bust,” he said. “At that time there was a tremendous amount of excess capacity built out in the infrastructure. Over the past few years, many companies have been in a consolidation mode – reducing the numbers of servers they have in operations as well as reducing the number of data centers they have in operations. Back in 2001-2002, companies were able to put off purchase due to the excess capacity, this is not the case today.”

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