Unix Servers Growing As Mainstay Of Data Centres


Unix systems continue to be a cornerstone in enterprise data centres, despite soaring sales of x86 servers

Servers running x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices may be the fastest-selling in the market, but Unix systems continue to play a key role in enterprise data centres, according to a survey by market research firm Gabriel Consulting Group.

Among the 306 enterprise data centre managers surveyed in the annual report, more than 80 percent said that half of their Unix workloads are mission-critical, half said that three-quarters of the applications on their Unix systems are mission-critical and almost 90 percent said their Unix servers were “strategic” to their organisations, according to Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting.

Windows And Linux Growing Faster

“I think most people underestimate the importance of Unix-based systems in enterprise IT because Windows and Linux server sales are much higher and are growing faster,” Olds said in a statement. “But these Unix systems fulfil a different role in most enterprises: They run mission-critical applications that are vital to the functioning of the business. Just because the sales of small, fuel-efficient cars are skyrocketing worldwide doesn’t mean that the need for dump trucks has gone away.”

The results from Gabriel Consulting echo what other analysts are finding: that many enterprises are continuing to look at Unix systems as key technologies to handle many of their critical workloads in the data centre, despite soaring sales of x86-based servers.

IDC analysts in May said that revenue from Unix servers sales in the first quarter jumped 12.5 percent – to $2.6 billion – over the same period last year, the first time in 11 quarters that revenues grew year over year. The top three Unix server vendors – Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Oracle – all saw revenue increases  during the quarter, and Unix server revenue accounted for 21.8 percent all server revenue worldwide during those three months.

“The Unix server marketplace is seeing new market dynamics cantered on technology refresh for mission-critical workloads, a new provider in Oracle, and a new product set across all of the top four Unix server vendors,” Jean Bozman, research vice president of enterprise servers at IDC, said in a statement.

Bozman added that despite the global recession and continuing competition from non-Unix platforms, businesses are again refreshing their Unix servers.

Gabriel Consulting’s Olds said he expects the use of Unix systems to grow. Almost half of those enterprise data centre managers surveyed said they will use more Unix in the near future, while 21 percent said they are reducing their use of Unix. That number has declined since 2007, according to the report.

In addition, only 20 percent said they had standardised on a single brand of Unix.

“Commercial Unix usage is pretty stable, with modest growth on the horizon,” Olds said. “While some commercial Unix systems are still being replaced by x86-based Windows or Linux systems, the number of new Unix systems being installed is quite a bit greater than the number being taken offline.”

He also said that while HP, IBM and Oracle “are constantly trying to entice customers into standardising on their brand of Unix, but we still don’t see this having much effect. Most customers have at least two Unix brands in their data centres, and almost half have all three”.

Itanium Row Causing Instability

The report comes at a time when former partners HP and Oracle are taking swings at each other. Oracle entered into the hardware business last year when it bought Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion. Through the deal, Oracle inherited Sun’s SPARC hardware business, bringing it into direct competition with HP and IBM. The competition was heightened in March, when Oracle announced it would no longer support Intel’s Itanium platform.

Oracle executives said the chip platform was coming to an end, but HP – which relies on Itanium to power its high-end Integrity and NonStop systems, which run the HP-UX operating system – accused Oracle of ditching Itanium to prop up its own struggling SPARC systems, and now is suing Oracle for breach of contract. HP and Oracle share about 140,000 customers, many of whom run Oracle database software on HP servers.

A key beneficiary of the HP-Oracle turmoil is IBM, which already had been stealing customers from HP and Oracle and now could be seen as the only stable vendor in the market, according to analysts.

Diminishing Returns From Virtualisation

Gabriel Consulting’s survey also found that while Unix server users had adopted virtualisation over the past few years, they were finding diminishing returns from the technology. Almost 70 percent said that more than half of their Unix systems are running multiple workloads, and 71 percent said they are seeing higher utilisation rates of their servers.

However, about half said virtualisation is making it easier to meet service-level agreements and fewer than half said the technology had cut into their management chores.

“Almost every customer using commercial Unix has adopted virtualisation to some extent, and they’re seeing benefits from it,” Olds said. “As virtualisation use and utilisation rates rise, customers are saying that systems and workload management is becoming more difficult. Virtualised systems are supposed to make management and hitting SLAs easier, but that’s not happening today.”

Enterprise data centre managers also are taking a slow approach to cloud computing, according to the survey. Fewer than one-third are using public clouds, while half are building their own private cloud infrastructures. Half say cloud computing will increase IT flexibility and speed, while less than half say it will significantly reduce IT costs.