Why Unix Server Makers Are Still Fighting


Unix may be declining, but HP, IBM and Oracle could keep customers on board a bit longer with more efficient designs and shared technology, says Peter Judge

The Unix server market is in serious decline, but somehow the big server makers won’t let it go. They are fighting as fiercely as ever – only now they aren’t fighting to take share from other vendors. Their main aim is to keep a revenue stream from their legacy of loyal Unix customers.

They also want to make sure they stay happy, so they keep the business when those customers finally decide to move away from Unix to other platforms.

Data centre, servers © Dario Lo Presti Shutterstock 2012Big players make their pitch

The fact that all the big players – HP, IBM, and Oracle – made announcements last month doesn’t change the fact that the Unix market is in terminal decline.  IDC found Unix servers in the last quarter of 2013 had shrunk more than 30 percent from the same period of 2012.

That quarterly revenue is still $3.1 billion however, and it still represents 11 percent of the overall server market, and a good market to continue to draw revenue from.

The big players’ tactics are very different, but they’ve got one major aim – to keep their loyalists on the proprietary platform for just one more hardware refresh. And they are all trying to offer the same tihings: space and power savings, along with a credible future path, and maybe an exit strategy.

HP is the leading server maker, and its announcements around the HP-UX operating system and Intel’s Itanium processor centred on the health of its other server lines, and the synergies its Unix servers have with the.

Virtually all the engineering in any of its servers can be used in the Itanium servers, HP tells us, so customers can feel confident in the future of the platform. If they buy the new servers, they can port their existing workloads from current hardware  while they are still running, and then get better performance, more space in their racks, and a lower power bill.

IBM and HP take different tacks

IBM has similar shared technologies with other server lines, but its Unix servers have been suffering – dropping 20 percent in revenue over the year. IBM’s response is to open up the Power procesor, its proprietary RISC system, so other vendors can use it.

Power is an efficient design which can run at low power, and IBM has a similar aim here to ARM, whose designs are proposed for server chips from vendors including AMD. The arrival of OpenPower must concern the ARM people, whose chips haven’t yet made it into any big-selling servers – especially as Google is serious enough about OpenPower to make its own server board.

Finally, Oracle is still pushing the SPARC RISC hardware and Solaris Unix version which it bought with Sun Microsystems in 2009. Oracle’s version of synergy is the “engineered systems” pitch, which insists that you get better value and more productivity if you just buy all your hardware and software from one vendor.

Oracle’s conflicting message

That’s staggeringly out of touch with these times when open source and open standards are starting to deliver real benefits. And Oracle’s tricky position is made blindingly clear by glacial update cycle of Solaris (it’s had one major new version since Oracle bought it, and by the headline addition in this update: OpenStack.

If an open source cloud stack, backed by all the other main vendors, is the main new feature of the operating system for your engineered systems, it doesn’t say a great deal for your single-vendor approach. Add to that the fact, spotted by some journalists, that Solaris gets Grizzly, an older version of OpenStack which lacks several new features.

Of the three, IBM’s OpenServer is the most interesting story, but we still have to see if Google is serious about using its own kit – or just bargaining with Intel.

A version of this story appeared on Green Data Center News.

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