Lower Cost Hardware Options Ease Budget Woes

Just as the cost of the average PC has plummeted in the past decade, enterprise-class hardware has gotten a lot cheaper while the performance and functionality have risen sharply.

Take the case of the storage area network (SAN). Turn back the clock a few years and SANs were complex and ultra-expensive. Now, SANs that use standard Internet Protocol (IP) rather than Fibre Channel (FC) have matured to the point where they are being implemented economically in organizations both large and small.

“IP SANs are booming,” said Steve Duplessie, an analyst with Milford, MA-based Enterprise Strategy Group. “We are now seeing the arrival of super-intelligent, very high-end systems that a monkey can run and a pauper can buy.”

According to Duplessie, there were around 10,000 SAN implementations last year and he expects another 25,000 in 2006. Vendor choices include Network Appliance, EMC Corp., Overland Storage, LeftHand Networks, EqualLogic, and StoneFly Networks.

“This technology is priced to make it affordable,” said Jeff Russell, CIO of The Members Group, a Des Moines, Iowa-based financial services company that installed an IP SAN based on StoneFly Backup Advantage (SBA) and StoneFly Replicator.

“It was a good way to have high availability and disaster recovery on a limited budget.”

The company chose not to immediately move all servers to the SAN, however. Instead it connected 25 out of 60 servers to the StoneFly network, and only those that held mission critical data. This served to contain costs.

The Members Group further reduced the price tag by using a network service provider for its alternate site. In the event of a disaster, it has hardware standing ready in rented space at a facility in Minneapolis. According to Russell, having a monthly hosting contract and servers on standby slashed his remote disaster recovery (DR) costs by a third.

“That amount was the make break point of us being able to move forward with our DR plans,” said Russell. “Renting made the whole project possible.”

The City of Ogden, Utah, is another fan of the IP SAN. It implemented technology by Left Hand Networks that proved to be much cheaper than purchasing an FC SAN. The city’s SAN serves over 50 Windows, Linux and UNIX servers and houses about one terabyte (TB) of data.

“Calculated cost per megabyte has dropped from $0.62 to $0.18 without factoring in the reduced cost of management or the leveraging of existing IP know-how,” said Jay Brummett, the city’s CTO.

When the Chips are Down

Many companies still specify Intel as their server chip of choice. What they may not realize, however, is that AMD has come on strong in the last few years.

The strength of AMD’s Opteron-based products is causing many analysts to give AMD the lead over Intel in terms of 64-bit processing, dual-core, and raw price/performance.

“I expect Opteron to capture a 25-to-30 percent share of the overall server market,” said Dan Olds, principal at IT analyst firm Gabriel Consulting Group. “Intel will find it increasingly difficult to win against the Opteron price/performance advantage.”

One end user taking full advantage of this trend is Penn State University’s research computing department. To gain more juice at low cost, it added 84 dual-processor Sun Fire V20z servers using 2.6 GHz AMD Opteron single-core chips and running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4.

“The Sun/Opteron combination was the most cost-effective way for us to significantly increase our compute capacity,” said Vijay Agarwala, director of high-performance computing at Penn State. “Opteron gives us better access to memory, lower cooling demands and a better price/performance point, and we felt that the Sun V20z was an excellent design.”

Penn State is also adding dual-core Sun Fire V40z servers to increase supercomputing flexibility. According to Agarwala, this will almost double the processing core capacity while maintaining the same heat and real-estate footprint

But don’t expect Intel to take this Opteron love-fest lying down. The chip giant has already caught up much of the lost ground in 64-bit computing and just unleashed a new wave of dual-core products.

Result? Olds predicts a major price war this year as these two titans duel it out for domination in the server space.

Gartner analyst John Enck concurs. He sees this as great news for end users, though perhaps not so great from the vendor perspective.

“Server consolidation is being driven by multi-core processors and virtualization,” said Enck. “Those twin demons will ultimately be responsible for slowing down volume server sales.”

More Power, Less Space, Lower Cost

Server consolidation, of course, has been an evolving trend for several years. Instead of 100 small underutilized servers, companies are finding it much cheaper to combine them into a handful of more powerful boxes.

Now, with dual-core, it is taking a new twist. Companies can effectively manage almost twice the power in the same space. Factor in blade server technology and the space equation becomes even more attractive.

Bryant University in Smithfield, RI for instance, is consolidating its three data centers into one. To facilitate the migration, it squeezed a total of 74 servers at its primary center—two RS 6000’s, multiple Intel boxes and some Sun servers—down to less than 25 machines.

“As a small university, we are faced with the goal of staying on the leading edge of technology as an academic pursuit, while faced with the constraints of a tight budget, said Art Gloster, vice president for information services at Bryant.

“We were running out of space, yet existing servers were utilized at only a small fraction of their capability with some servers running at 10 percent or less.”

He brought in IBM HS20 and JS20 blade servers, as well as the IBM eServer p5 550 and some IBM eServer xSeries boxes. Bryant also cut down on the number of operating systems, eliminating Windows NT, AIX and RS 6000.

That left Sun Solaris, Windows 200x and Linux. Gloster estimates that he gained the equivalent of at least two FTEs (full-time employees) by consolidating the hardware and minimizing the number of operating systems.