Server Vendor Analysis So Far
It’s interesting, because this space is vastly different than it was even a few years ago. The core hardware (CPU, RAM, disk, networking) is all identical, so the companies are starting to compete on service and differentiation in other ways. That’s good for all of us and very similar to what’s happening in the enterprise software space with open source.
For us, our big hot buttons are:
- Great lights-out management, preferrably over network rather than serial.
- Good order turnaround time (7-14 days).
- Good support contracts (24×7 support, 4hour replacement)
- Price competitive. We’re not necessarily looking for the lowest price, but we expect our final choice to be in the ballpark with the others. We’ll pay a bit of a premium for better management or service or something tangible like that.
On with the show:
Our current main vendor for x86 gear, they’ve finally swung into action and have a good plan of attack for solving our crashing problems. No immediate results, but I’m a developer and an engineer – I understand the need to monitor the problem, gather data, and narrow in. Good stuff.
I’ve been happy with Rackable for most of 4 years, but in the last year they’ve been very slow to get us new hardware and getting some movement on this particular problem was tough in the beginning. I realize, and have always realized, that Rackable isn’t Sun/HP/Dell, but that was sorta the point – when we were tiny, getting attention from the big guys was tough. Now we’re small, rather than tiny, and getting their attention is proving to be tough.
Another knock against them is their management modules are serial based, rather than network based, which we’re growing tired of.
We have at least one HP employee in the servers group who’s a passionate SmugMug customer. Big points there, in my book, since that means we have extra avenues if and when we have problems.
Another *huge* win for HP is their Integrated Lights Out 2 (iLO 2) product. All the vendors offer basic integrated management on some level, but iLO 2 seems to be head-and-shoulders above the competition. It can share a network port with the OS, simplilfying our network architecture, including VLAN support. It does remote full KVM, remote device (DVD/CD/floppy) attachment, and a million other amazing things. Given we’re a small company, strong remote management is a huge bonus for us.
On the downside, our passionate SmugMugger isn’t a sales guy, and the sales contact hasn’t moved as fast as we would like, given our situation. We’re a small company, so I’m not surprised, but Sun and Dell moved faster. We still don’t have much insight into whether there’s an offering at HP that’ll serve this particular need. Finally, HP seems to want to set up a meeting before getting the ball rolling. Personally, I’d prefer to verify that the products and prices are in the right ballpark before spending time organizing and attending a meeting.
No-one at Dell came out of the woodwork in response to my blog entry, but they were easily the fastest on the draw getting a quote (in our preferred format, PDF, no less) in our hands with no mess and no fuss. I think we just cold-called them and they whipped something up fast. Big points, in my book, since it lets us get a feeling for how competitive both their hardware and pricing is.
I believe, though, that their lights-out management is an add-in card, rather than built-in, and it certainly doesn’t share a network port or anything. Dang.
Quite a few SmugMuggers over at Sun, which again, gives me the warm and fuzzies. Nothing quite like having contacts in the company who use, love, and count on your product. Sun also wanted to set up a meeting, rather than whipping out a quick quote, but they were extremely fast and proactive about it, rearranging their schedules and bringing along some big guns. Not only did this flatter us (given our small size), but I think I’m beginning to understand why they’re profitable again and why I’m starting to think that trend will accelerate: they’re trying to give love to small startups because they know some of them will grow into huge companies. If they build a strong relationship early on, the theory goes, they’ll have their business forever. I happen to think this is a very good strategy. There have been some hiccups, as Matt Mullenweg points out, but Jonathan Schwartz responded in a way that I wish every CEO would. Hopefully they work the kinks out.
I love, too, that Sun is changing and innovating once more: embracing x86 & Linux is huge, ZFS is the coolest filesystem ever, and they’ve had an unusually high volume of clever product announcements this year (Thumper, Black Box, Sun Spots, etc).
Yesterday, too, I got a first-hand glimpse of how Sun’s employees feel about Jonathan, their new CEO. They were glowing, speaking in reverent terms about him. That bodes well for their new direction and future.
Alas, though, I have some past experience with their lights-out management, and while it’s adequate, it’s not nearly as good as HP’s. It can’t share a network port and doesn’t offer the other advanced features HP has. At least it is network-based, rather than serial (I believe it does both, actually, which could be a boon to some people).
UPDATE: Dave pointed out in the comments that Sun’s Opteron management lets you have graphical console, keyboard, mouse, DVD, floppy, and ISO support. Plus, it shares one of the GigE ports. I’ve only used the non-Opteron boxes, so I’m probably both out of date and not used to what the architecture differences are. I could have sworn, though, that Sun told us yesterday, in person, that it doesn’t share the network ports. Anyway, sounds like Sun’s doing a better job on management than I initially gave them credit for.
The bad news
The specific platform we want (two CPU sockets, sixteen DIMM slots) doesn’t seem to be readily available from HP, Dell, or Sun. We’re going back-and-forth to make sure, but none of the systems published on their sites seem to offer this. Hopefully someone can deliver something. Rackable, however, does – they’re just crashing for us at the moment.
UPDATE: Sun has one too, the Sun Fire X2200. I just somehow overlooked it. Game on!
In case you’re curious, it’s because 2GB DIMMs are at a price point similar to double 1GB DIMMs, so we’d rather have 10 32GB boxes than 20 16GB boxes for this application.
At this point, I think Sun wins on service & attention while HP wins on product. Which we’ll choose, I still have no idea.
Have any experience, good or bad, with any of these vendors? Let me know.