The Cloud Ate My Server Vendor

Remember when "Other" was just a rounding error in market share reports? Now in the server market, it just might be the main event, as Facebook's Open Compute project, cloud computing, and other trends drive buyers to no-name server vendors instead of IBM, HP, and Dell. Time to short the incumbents?

According to new research from Gartner, server veterans like IBM and HP took a beating last quarter, with shipments plummeting 11.5% and 5.9%, respectively, contributing to an overall 0.2% server shipment slowdown. Meanwhile, so-called "whitebox" vendors that make up the "Other" category saw a 22% rise in revenues, and now account for 35.2% of global units shipped. IDC's market data showed largely the same incumbent malaise, with "Other" pumping revenues 14% year-over-year.

It used to be that such whitebox vendors like Quanta Computer, Wistron and Compal Electronics, all based in Taiwan, could be counted on to quietly build products for their name-brand American partners like Dell. No more. As Chris Gonsalves reports, companies like Google and Rackspace have looked to tailor servers to their requirements by going direct to Taiwan's leading ODMs, which has encouraged these vendors to start selling directly to more traditional enterprise accounts.

It's only going to get worse for the incumbents.

Cloud: Friend or Foe?

After all, the whole focus of cloud computing is to commoditize the server, making it a compute resource enterprises rent rather than buy. While not all workloads will move to the cloud, a big percentage will. In the cloud, enterprises simply aren't going to care whose logo sits on a box they can't even see.

And for those who do persist in managing their own datacenters, things like Facebook's Open Compute project may drive enterprises toward designing in lots of "Other." While Open Compute may not matter to most mainstream enterprises, as Mark Hachman points out, it's one more pressure point that incumbent server vendors could do without.

(See also The 5 Big Questions Dell Will Have To Answer To Survive.)

Ironically, the very thing that most threatens legacy server vendors could also save them, and then ruin them anyway: cloud.

IBM just announced it's getting behind OpenStack in a big way, basing all of its cloud services and software on an open cloud architecture. HP and others have also committed to OpenStack or other cloud platforms. Rather than be cannibalized by the public cloud, these server vendors are trying to extend their brands to private clouds, allowing enterprise customers to rent what they used to buy.

The problem, however, is that these vendors might be too successful. 

A Catch-22 in the Cloud

While public clouds like Amazon's AWS have been on a tear, they've still largely been relegated to test and development workloads. What happens when IBM and HP help make CIOs comfortable with the cloud? It's possible that those risk-averse CIOs will stick with the tried and true incumbents. 

But it's just as possible that once enterprises get comfortable with running mission-critical workloads on a private cloud that carries a shiny Dell logo, they'll take the next step into the public cloud, projected to be a $131 billion market by 2017, according to Gartner. Amazon has long argued that the real benefits of cloud computing are lost when trying to replicate them in private cloud deployments. While it's possible that IT will effectively mimic the public cloud, it's just as possible that developers and line-of-business executives will take their CIOs newfound enthusiasm for the cloud and run with it...straight to Amazon, Rackspace, or another public cloud provider.

In so doing, they'll inadvertently be growing "Other's" share of the global server market... and legacy server vendors' desperation to embrace the very thing that may kill them: the cloud. 

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