Inside the Server Wars

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The latest round of server market share numbers for the third quarter brought the usual amount of vendor bragging; especially from IBM which, according to Gartner, gained two points of revenue share in the X86 server segment and almost five points in the UNIX server segment.

Market share numbers are never particularly interesting to customers, but where IBM is making those gains might be. According to Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy for IBM's Power Systems, UNIX server gains are coming in equal measure from former customers of Sun and Hewlett-Packard.

The issues concerning Sun's pending acquisition by Oracle are pretty obvious, but the HP issues are less so. According to Handy, HP's tardiness in rolling out UNIX on the latest version of Intel's Itanium processors has given IBM opportunity to promote the significant performance advantages of its Power system alternative to HP UNIX architectures.

Beyond taking share from Sun and HP in a declining UNIX server market, Handy says IBM is also successfully battling Intel server architectures in contests that pit Xeon Nehalem servers against Power servers. With the advent of virtualization, customers are discovering the need to consolidate as many virtual servers as possible on physical servers that provide access to as much memory as possible. Although IBM Power servers don't get invited to bid on as many of those types of deals as they like, Handy says the Power servers can best Intel Nehalem servers when customers give them half a chance.

Overall, the worst may be over for server vendors that were hit by a double whammy in the form of a declining economy and sky-high adoption of virtual machines that allow customers to get more mileage out of their existing server investments. As the economy slowly improves and customers discover the performance liabilities of multiple virtual machines running on the same server, there should be an increase in high-end server sales. The only question is, how much of that business can IBM's Power server business pick off in the face of competition from HP, Dell, Cisco and even IBM's X-series systems team that are all pushing either Intel Nehalem or AMD Opteron systems against all things UNIX.