Magic Quadrant for Blade Servers
This Magic Quadrant for blade servers focuses on a market that is becoming ever more complex and diverse, due to the convergence of related modular form factors, a fast-growing interest in fabric-based infrastructure and the influence of cloud computing on buying behavior.
This document was revised on 20 March 2012. The document you are viewing is the corrected version. For more information, see the Corrections page on gartner.com.
A blade server is a modular platform that fits together with other blades (not necessarily servers), into a custom-designed chassis to create a fully functioning system. Multiple chassis may then combine within a rack to create a larger system, and multiple racks may be combined to create a large system that could consume a whole aisle or container. In all cases, the blades become the individual building blocks. The chassis provides power and cooling provisioning to all blades, plus various common management functions.
Via the backplane, blades can also provide connectivity (and even aggregation) from server to server, or from server to storage or the network, but network and storage input/output (I/O) can be directly routed to the blades. Blade servers can have onboard storage, or can be completely diskless, with OS booting done from the storage area network (SAN). Most blade chassis are designed for blades to be vertically mounted, but this is not essential, and there are exceptions. Blades can, in theory, have any number of processors from any processor type, although it is normal for blade servers to be lower-end devices, with no more than four processors. Some blade vendors can combine two or more blades to become a larger, logical computer.
It is common for blades with higher complements of processors or storage to be wider, so that two or more chassis slots are consumed. Terminology, like "bricks," has been used for these wider form factors. Blade chassis capacity can vary, and may be populated with blades of different types, including additional memory, storage devices and network switches or other I/O modules for added connectivity. Most blade chassis are designed to fit within standard 19-inch racks, but some enterprise blade platforms are based on other dimensions. Blades are not the only form of modular server; skinless servers are an even more rack-dense form factor that has emerged in the past three years to address many extreme scale-out workload requirements that blades were first designed to cover. We now see the emergence of extreme low-energy servers (typically based on low-cost processors like ARM or Atom) that will extend the horizontal scaling still further, although usually based on some modular, tray-based form factor. True skinless servers typically lack the availability of the richer tooling that benefits blade environments, so the two form factors address distinctly different workload needs. The complete history of blade servers is analyzed in Note 1.
As the addressable market for blade servers evolved toward more sophisticated and diverse workloads, a vacuum in the server market gradually formed, as blades became overengineered for their original market objectives. Skinless servers are an alternative form of modular design developed to fill that vacuum. Skinless servers are designed with a reduced amount of rack, chassis and, in some cases, motherboard components to maximize server density potential, and reduce material use and power consumption. Typical designs involve a lack of outside sheet metal coverings (hence, the term "skinless"), compared with individual servers, as well as shared power and cooling resources within the rack frame. Google's server designs started the skinless server trend, and the company's innovations in this area continue to influence introductions of skinless servers.
At first glance, skinless servers share many common attributes with blades, which explains why some vendors regard the markets for blade servers and skinless servers as synonymous. For example, skinless servers are designed to slide into a common chassis, enabling the quick and easy addition of new components, and the replacement of failed components. They rely on common components such as power supplies, cooling fans and I/O, which are functions of the chassis, not the skinless server. They usually are based on a standard x86 architecture, run a regular Windows or Linux workload, and conform to the 19-inch-rack-width standard.
The emergence of extreme-low-energy servers, based on Atom or ARM processors, will open the door to new software stacks. As with blades, the mounting technology for skinless servers will be dictated by the server manufacturer, and is proprietary. Workloads and situations that lend themselves well to skinless server approaches include applications that share server resources across a network, including extreme analytic and high-performance computing (HPC) environments. Skinless servers offer an additional benefit: Because they use less material in the server infrastructure, less material needs to be replaced and/or recycled. Most blade vendors referenced in this research are actively marketing skinless server designs — either alongside or integrated with their blade server strategies.
The 2009 recession stalled the entire server market, and blade servers were no exception. While overall server market growth returned in 2010 and 2011, prerecession growth rates for blades have not yet been regained, and server market volume still heavily favors rack-optimized servers. Based on the first three quarters of 2011, blade shipment share declined. This is mainly attributable to the growth of skinless form factors, which are included in the category of rack-optimized servers.
Here are figures for server form factor revenue and units from 2009 through 2011 (the 2011 values are based on first-quarter through third-quarter results only):
- Rack blade servers shipped 13.5% in 2009, and had a total vendor revenue of 19.98%. In 2010, 13.1% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 19.85%. In 2011, 12.5% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 20.86%.
- Rackmountable servers shipped 14.7% in 2009, and had a total vendor revenue of 11.08%. In 2010, 13.0% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 9.09%. In 2011, 12.3% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 8.44%.
- Rack-optimized servers shipped 59.2% in 2009, and had a total vendor revenue of 59.91%. In 2010, 63.0% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 64.09%. In 2011, 64.0% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 64.11%.
- Tower/stand-alone servers shipped 12.5% in 2009, and had a total vendor revenue of 9.03%. In 2010, 10.9% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 6.97%. In 2011, 11.2% shipped, and total vendor revenue was 6.59%.
Blades still represent only about 13% of the total server market in units and 21% in revenue, based on the first three quarters of 2011. Because they favor smaller and less challenging workloads, most blade deployments favor x86 architectures; however, vendors such as HP, IBM and Oracle ship non-x86 blades, primarily targeted at Unix users, and vendors like Super Micro Computer, SeaMicro, Dell and HP are bringing low-power ARM or Atom products to market. Blade servers are well-suited as test and development platforms in Unix organizations. During 2010, HP transitioned its entire Itanium-based Unix strategy to blades, where the high-end Superdome 2 platform outperforms its rack-optimized predecessor by a wide margin. Similarly, HP's NonStop fault-tolerant platform is also blade-based, demonstrating that blade technology can be deployed even for continuous-availability workloads.
As a result, we are seeing more adoption of blades in production environments for complex applications — such as high-end database serving, data warehousing, ERP and CRM — and extreme horizontal scaling workloads like analytics. This will lead to an increasing technology overlap among blade servers, skinless servers and rack-optimized servers, driving a need for vendors to be more transparent about workload optimization for each competing form factor. We recommend that customers continue to demand valid references and proof points for all workload scenarios that push the upper or lower boundaries of established blade implementation.
Due to a focus on the market by IBM and HP — which has been sustained for several years — the blade server market is very skewed, with over 60% of revenue achieved by these two vendors. But Dell's third-place position is now under assault by Cisco's recent entrance into the market. Cisco's entrance into the market is causing re-evaluations among the installed bases and channels of established blade market vendors. Cisco now claims 18% of the North American market share (although Cisco's blade server business is still rather skewed toward the Americas, and the market share is not consistent across geographies). In the first three quarters of 2011, we calculate Cisco's global market share at 7.9% units and 10.8% revenue (compared with 9.4% and 7%, respectively, for Dell).
With so much investment in the concept, and with a strong compound annual growth rate (CAGR) that will erode the market for other server form factors, the blade server market offers a compelling opportunity for most server vendors — particularly those that focus on more specialized geographic, verticalized or workload niches. The emerging market potential for private and public cloud server infrastructures also provides a natural opportunity for blade (and skinless) servers, as most cloud infrastructures are likely to be based on highly virtualized x86 platforms that are well-suited to the need for easy and frequent hardware provisioning.
Source: Gartner (March 2012)
Bull's NovaScale x86 blade family includes chassis options spanning 7U and 9U blade form factors. These are targeted at business computing needs, but are not the extent of Bull's modular server offerings. Bull also launched its bullx server design in 2009, which is primarily targeted at HPC, analytics and other extreme scaling requirements; the bullion server line forms the centerpiece of Bull's new Le cloud by Bull strategy for enterprise-oriented, public cloud services. To extend its international reach beyond its western European heartlands, Bull has collaborative ventures with regionalized vendors and fulfillment partners in multiple countries, including emerging geographies.
- Bull has a strong presence in Western Europe, in addition to verticalized niches across multiple geographies in industries such as financial services and the public sector.
- The company is a well-established HPC market contender with a strong (and growing) international presence.
- It is extending its geographic reach through OEM and other fulfillment agreements in multiple emerging markets.
- Bull is committed to technology innovation, especially energy efficiency and management of large-scale clusters.
- Bull's limited regional presence can become a gating factor for its potential as a partner for multinational implementations.
- Bull has a limited channel presence, especially outside western Europe.
- To create a viable market for its Le cloud by Bull strategy, Bull will have to compete for influence against larger, global vendors in a finite service provider community.
While maintaining a strong and viable presence in the networking infrastructure of most data centers, Cisco's track record as a blade server vendor is relatively young. The company entered the market in 2009 via technology gained as a result of acquiring switch vendor Nuova (which was already funded by Cisco at the time to develop the Unified Computing System (UCS) platform and Top-of-Rack (ToR) technology). Cisco's UCS is highly innovative, and is targeted at highly integrated and virtualized enterprise requirements, along with a growing focus on cloud and other service providers.
The UCS architecture differs from that of other vendors by deploying the ToR switch as a management server, which is able to assign virtual personalities to the blades that become automatically provisioned on installation. Other vendors need to deploy a subnetwork to achieve a similar result. UCS, therefore, becomes a form of integrated system where part of the total platform is networking-based, rather than computing-based. While blades represent most UCS shipments, Cisco has a strategy to extend UCS Manager to include blades and racks, eliminating management barriers between form factors.
Cisco's growing server market viability continues to test the relationship between it and most other server vendors. The company is a founding member of the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) alliance, which has developed into a joint venture funded primarily by Cisco, EMC and VMware, with additional minority funding from Intel. VCE is responsible for engineering a vertically integrated solution based on UCS called Vblock that targets multiple workload requirements for a highly integrated converged infrastructure platform.
Cisco has also developed similar vertically integrated solutions with NetApp (FlexPod), Citrix (VXI) and other vendors to target specific, end-user workload and application needs. While still relatively new to this market, Cisco has created a great deal of awareness, and is aggressively driving its blade strategy to increase wallet share in accounts where Cisco has established a strong influence. Cisco has started to openly disclose its UCS results during 2011, and over the first three quarters of 2011, achieved a clear No. 3 market position in North America that contributed 65% of total revenue in 2Q12 (Cisco and Dell compete for global third place in blade shipments based on units and revenue).
- Cisco is a global corporation with a presence in most data centers, due to its strong market share in networking.
- UCS is a fabric-enabled, enterprise-class platform with good integration of networking, virtualization, management tools and storage.
- Solutions like Vblock and FlexPod provide Cisco with cross-selling opportunities to the broader, combined installed bases of partner organizations, such as EMC, NetApp, Citrix and VMware.
- Cisco has strong partnerships with virtualization and management tool vendors, as well as the emerging categories of cloud and other service providers.
- Despite a strong data center pedigree, Cisco has to work to overcome a lack of server product history, server market track record and installed base to leverage.
- The company's strategy is dependent on alliances with management tool vendors and storage vendors to create a complete offering.
- Strategic alliances with key OS and application vendors are relatively untested in an environment where Cisco is a server vendor.
- Cisco has not yet established a recognized presence in the rack-optimized server market; this limits its perceived addressable reach primarily to the blade market, rather than the broader market scope of more established server vendors with more extensive product portfolios.
Dell's current M-Series blade generation was launched in 2007; this platform enabled Dell to rapidly gain credibility as a blade server vendor. In 2008, Dell extended its fabric computing scope through a collaborative relationship with Egenera, and has more recently refined its strategy to focus on merger and acquisition (M&A) activity that enables Dell to extend its existing engineering and development toward fabrics and integrated systems. During 2010 and 2011, Dell acquired Scalent Systems, Force10 Networks, RNA Networks and Compellent.
The Force10 acquisition is still very recent, and Dell has yet to publicly demonstrate how this technology will benefit its blade strategy. But we see networking integration becoming an increasingly important part of the blade evaluation process, hence the potential importance of this acquisition.
The Scalent technology is at the heart of Dell's integrated system strategies, such as vStart and private cloud solutions, which leverage its Virtual Integrated System (VIS). Dell also maintains a leadership position in the growing market for skinless servers with the PowerEdge C line, and Dell's Data Center Solutions (DCS) division has been created to target cloud services providers, and other buying centers for extreme scaling with customized designs. Dell offers Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron blade servers that are well-engineered, enterprise-class platforms that fit well with the rest of Dell's x86 server portfolio.
These innovations helped the company defend its market share during 2011, and put Dell on a trajectory to leverage greater market disruption in the future. Dell's blade servers target a broad range of market needs and geographies.
- As a mainstream, x86 server market leader, Dell has extensive cross-selling opportunities to a large and growing installed base that spans blades, racks and towers.
- Recent acquisitions strengthen Dell's fabric computing message, and position the company to launch more integrated system initiatives during 2012.
- Dell has an aggressive pricing policy and a strong midmarket presence.
- Dell has focused innovation in areas such as memory aggregation, general-purpose graphics processing units (GPGPU) support, cooling, virtual I/O and skinless servers.
- While remaining a leader in the overall x86 server market, Dell has lost its No. 3 blade server market position in North America to Cisco (and is in danger of losing this position globally); consistent improvement in execution will be required during 2012 to defend Dell from the growing presence of Cisco.
- Despite a strong and plausible data center strategy, Dell still lacks credibility among many enterprise buying centers.
- Dell must achieve and sustain clear messaging around its fabric-based computing strategy to leverage the acquisitions of RNA Networks, Force10 Networks, Compellent and Scalent, and to better leverage opportunities to consolidate and grow blade market share.
Fujitsu restructured its global sales and marketing operations in April 2009, which has led to more consistent sales execution and product branding across all geographies. The company offers a broad range of blade offerings, including the high-end Primergy BX900 Dynamic Cube platform, and an established marketing and support relationship to act as an OEM for Egenera's blade platforms in EMEA. The CX1000 is a skinless server design targeted at cloud and other rack-dense requirements.
- Fujitsu has good technology innovation, especially in the Primergy BX900 Dynamic Cube server, which competes with Cisco's UCS and HP's CloudSystem Matrix, and the CX1000.
- Fujitsu has extensive cross-selling opportunities to a large and growing installed base that spans blades, racks and towers.
- The company also has strong vertical market strength (especially in the public sector), and a strong regional presence in Western Europe and Japan.
- The new global organization provides Fujitsu with more consistent product and branding strategies, and the responsibilities of the lines of business have clearer product, regional and vertical demarcation.
- The company has a limited track record as a volume supplier outside Japan and Western Europe.
- Fujitsu has a limited channel presence, especially in North America.
Although less known outside Japan, Hitachi's Compute Blades are well-established, and address a broad set of enterprise and midmarket requirements. The company is a technology innovator, especially in blade aggregation and highly integrated virtualization. Hitachi's Unified Compute Platform integrates Compute Blades and Hitachi's storage technology to create an integrated system aimed at service providers and enterprises.
- Hitachi has a well-proven platform, with a strong Japanese installed base.
- The company offers chassis options that address enterprise and workgroup/departmental/branch requirements.
- While less known as a server vendor in Western markets, Hitachi has a very strong reputation as a storage vendor that it can leverage.
- Hitachi is committed to technology innovation, particularly in I/O and memory aggregation, as well as hardware-embedded virtualization.
- Hitachi's sales and marketing execution in Western markets has traditionally been geared more toward its storage business, although the company is now restructuring its sales and marketing to broaden its appeal. Currently, it remains relatively unknown as a server vendor.
- Hitachi has limited account presence outside Japan.
- Hitachi has a limited channel presence, especially in EMEA and North America.
HP continues to innovate and redefine its blade strategy with a view to expanding the scope of the entire blade server marketplace. Together with the strengths of its ProLiant range in the broader x86 market, HP has been a blade market leader throughout the past decade (and the volume blade market leader since 2007). Since the 2006 introduction of its latest chassis generation, HP has steadily asserted market leadership, and now maintains a dominant (sometimes 50% plus) blade market presence in all geographies.
With a broad range of Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron and Intel Itanium blades around three-chassis form factors, plus more specialized NonStop blades for continuous availability, HP's blade strategy is the centerpiece of the company's Converged Infrastructure strategy and vision. HP's blade-based integrated system offerings — VirtualSystem, CloudSystem and AppSystem — are integrated systems aimed at a variety of solution-oriented and hybrid-cloud or rapid implementation needs, where strong integration of compute, network and storage is an asset.
HP also markets the ProLiant SL skinless server design for extreme-scale-out workloads. HP transformed its entire Unix market focus around blades in 2010, with the release of Itanium-based Integrity server blades in enclosures consistent with the deployment of ProLiant blades. In recent months, HP has announced three new initiatives that logically build on the existing BladeSystem architecture: Voyager describes the innovations HP is currently bringing to market based on latest generation x86 platforms; Moonshot describes the collaboration with Calxeda to market extreme-low-energy servers based on the ARM processor. After a challenging year for its Unix business, HP announced Odyssey in 4Q11. This initiative will enable the blade-based Superdome 2 platform to support x86 blades for mission-critical workloads, in addition to continued support for Itanium blades. The ability to aggregate multiple Intel Xeon blades in a single logical server should dissipate most market concerns regarding the vertical scaling of x86 servers and blades in general.
- As the blade market volume leader in all geographies, HP has extensive cross-selling opportunities as the leading x86 server vendor and as a major Unix vendor.
- HP's blade strategy benefits from a strong investment in management tools that enables a single point of management across multiple virtualization technologies (VMware, Microsoft and HP-UX-based virtualization), spanning physical and virtual infrastructures.
- HP has chassis options that address data center, workgroup/departmental/branch and mission-critical availability requirements.
- HP is committed to blade innovation, particularly around its Virtual Connect and FlexFabric virtual I/O solutions, cooling, infrastructure autoprovisioning, blade aggregation and fabric-enabled infrastructure convergence.
- HP's integrated system portfolio (and new initiatives like Moonshot, Voyager and Odyssey) build on the BladeSystem architecture, creating arguably the most comprehensive blade-based portfolio in the industry.
- HP has an extensive portfolio of rack and blade servers that requires careful market positioning to avoid the impression of complexity (especially with the new push into extreme scaling workloads with the ProLiant SL skinless server design).
- Positioning of HP's generic BladeSystem servers against integrated system designs (and the positioning of one integrated system against another) is not always clear; this sometimes muddles the distinction between HP's blade server portfolio being seen as comprehensive or complicated.
- HP's blade-based Unix strategy took a major confidence knock in 2011; this has forced HP to the offensive with its new strategy to stimulate a greater acceptance of x86 servers for high-end, mission-critical workloads. As HP introduces new x86 blades compatible with the current Superdome 2 enclosure, clear positioning against other enterprise-class blade offerings (Itanium and x86) will become even more crucial.
Huawei has been well-established in the fast-growing Chinese market for many years, and has more recently been expanding rapidly across Asia/Pacific countries. New initiatives are now targeting other fast-growing IT markets like India, Brazil and Eastern Europe with a strong awareness campaign now addressing North America and Western Europe as well. The E6000 is a full-height enterprise blade platform based on Intel Xeon, while the X6000 is a skinless server design aimed at scale-out workloads.
Huawei's blade server business compliments its better-known technology businesses, like core networking and telecommunications, and blades are incorporated into many of these designs. Huawei is also targeting other vertical industries, like financial services and energy, plus positioning blades for cloud infrastructure deployments. The company has earned a reputation for strong support, and a willingness to make large investments in markets for longer term gain. The executive team in charge of enterprise business has strong a track record in Western markets, and the company is planning to increase the internal head count that is focused on enterprise business from 10,000 to 30,000 during 2012.
- Huawei can leverage a strong regional presence in China and across many Asia/Pacific countries.
- The company has good cross-selling potential, especially where it is a preferred telecommunications or switch/router vendor, and where Chinese and other Asian companies are expanding operations into Western markets.
- With a very strong balance sheet, Huawei has the capacity to aggressively build market awareness on a global scale.
- Huawei is committed to delivering innovation around custom integration, virtualization and parallel computing.
- The Huawei corporate brand still has relatively little market awareness in Western markets (although a strong marketing communications campaign is under way to address this).
- Huawei will be challenged to overcome political sentiment in the U.S. that can mitigate against Chinese companies — particularly in an election year, and against a backdrop of geopolitical situations that are aggravating national prejudices.
- Where the Huawei name is known and trusted, it much more likely to be as a supplier of networking and telecommunications equipment. Huawei still has much work to do to become recognized as a server vendor on the international stage.
IBM has a long track record of blade market innovation and commitment, and holds a viable No. 2 position in the blade server market, although its market share slipped during 2011. In 2009, IBM started putting new initiatives in place to compete more effectively, including supply chain enhancements, dedicated sales resources and new channel programs, and these contributed to a good recovery in 2010.
The 2010 acquisition of Blade Network Technologies signaled an intention to further strengthen IBM's networking presence, and this is helping IBM to strengthen its fabric and infrastructure convergence strategy. But 2011 was a less inspiring year for IBM's blade business, and Cisco has been able to close within a few points of market share in North America. With five different enclosures, IBM can address a broad set of requirements that includes extreme scaling, direct current (DC) power and Network Equipment-Building System (NEBS) compliance; yet, all IBM blades are interoperable among all five chassis options, and IBM has always maintained a strong focus on chassis and blade interoperability.
IBM introduced many blade server innovations during 2010, including in-chassis FCoE support, MAX5 memory aggregation, solid-state drive (SSD) support and blade server aggregation for enhanced scaling, plus zBX support for the latest System z mainframe generation. These investments are now leveraged into IBM's latest BladeCenter HX5 innovations, and further blade innovations are expected for 2012, as IBM seeks to counter the growing integrated system threat from Cisco, HP, Dell and Oracle.
- The company has extensive cross-selling opportunities in all geographies, as IBM is a mainstream, x86 server market leader (especially in high-end x86 servers), and the volume market leader in Unix and mainframe server markets.
- IBM has the broadest set of blade chassis options (five in all) that addresses enterprise and workgroup/departmental/branch requirements, as well as more specialized needs, such as NEBS compliance.
- IBM supports x86 and reduced instruction set computer (RISC; Power)-based blades, and has now committed to support blade-based infrastructure within the System z architecture.
- IBM's blade strategy benefits from the company's extensive portfolio of end-to-end management tools.
- Proven software market credibility and share provide IBM with opportunities for highly verticalized platforms that integrate the hardware and software stack.
- The company is committed to blade innovation, particularly around cooling and specialized workloads, as well as memory/processor aggregation.
- With such a comprehensive portfolio of server market offerings — spanning mainframes, RISC Unix and x86 — IBM has the most complex positioning challenge.
- The continued strength and effectiveness of IBM's Power7 market execution imposes additional positioning challenges for its x86-based platforms.
- IBM has not articulated its message around fabrics and infrastructure convergence as strongly as vendors like Oracle, Cisco and HP have to date.
- IBM's strong blade market share has visibly declined during 2011; in the first three quarters, unit market share is 19.8% and revenue share is 21.4%; both are several points down on IBM's 2010 position.
NEC (in common with other Japanese vendors) frequently lacks recognition in Western markets for the breadth and sophistication of its blade server portfolio and corporate strengths. NEC blade server offerings address a broad range of needs through two chassis designs: Sigmablade-H (for enterprise needs) and Sigmablade-M (for midmarket and departmental needs). NEC also is investing in Atom-based servers to address the emerging market for extreme analytics.
During 2011, NEC strengthened the integration between its blade platforms and network switching (with plans for OpenFlow support) and storage, and blades form the foundation of NEC appliances targeted at data warehouse, desktop virtualization and archiving workloads. In keeping with many other vendors, NEC is courting cloud services providers to exploit the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) opportunity.
NEC also has a strong working relationship with Egenera and Blade Network technologies (now owned by IBM), and collaborates at the engineering level with several vendors (including Bull and Unisys in the blade server market). NEC continues to expand its local sales and marketing focus in EMEA and North America, taking a narrow and deep strategy, with a limited number of channel partners. While this has enabled NEC to grow its blade market share beyond average market growth during 2011, it creates gaps in market awareness of NEC and its capabilities.
- NEC has a very strong Japanese installed base, with potential to cross-sell through international subsidiaries of those client organizations.
- The company has chassis options that address enterprise and workgroup/departmental/branch requirements, and the emerging market for extreme-low-energy servers.
- NEC is committed to technology innovation, particularly platform convergence and intelligent power management.
- Strong engineering relationships with vendors like Unisys and Bull strengthen the financial viability of NEC's blade servers beyond its sales reach.
- NEC holds a broad and dominant market position in Japan, but a more focused go-to-market approach in Western markets leads to a frequent lack of awareness.
- The company's international sales and support infrastructure is still at a nascent stage for server deployments.
- NEC has a limited channel presence, especially in EMEA and North America (although the company is working to address this with new channel development initiatives).
By acquiring Sun Microsystems, Oracle inherited the 6000 blade family, which was launched in 2007. As a replacement for the older 8000 blade family, this platform enabled Sun to grow its blade market share steadily until the market slowdown of 2009 and the subsequent acquisition by Oracle. The Oracle Sun Blade family is an evolution of that product line — supporting both x86 and the latest generation SPARC T4 processors.
As the market has recovered from the recession, Oracle has focused its x86 hardware energies primarily on its successful Engineered Systems approach of Exadata and Exalogic (which are not blade based platforms). The relative success of Oracle's Exadata and Exalogic strategies help demonstrate that blade-based systems are not essential for a viable, integrated system strategy. While this has raised speculation about Oracle's commitment to the general-purpose x86 server market, the demand for Oracle Sun Blades remains viable, particularly from within the telco sector, where Sun's long commitment to NEBS compliance has made Oracle a strategic vendor. Oracle is also committed to delivering total cost of ownership (TCO) advantages through simplified pricing and support that extend across hardware and Oracle software products.
- The Oracle Sun Blade family addresses a broad range of blade offerings that include Intel x86 and the latest generation SPARC T4 variants.
- The Sun Blade 6000 is well-suited to more specialized blade markets, such as NEBS compliance.
- Support for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) ExpressModules provides Oracle blades with very versatile I/O manageability, including the ability of every blade to have its own unique I/O configuration.
- Oracle is committed to technology innovation, particularly around energy management, hardware resilience, virtualization and management tools, as well as flash memory integration.
- Although Oracle's sales and marketing initiatives have succeeded in rebuilding much client and channel confidence in the SPARC architecture, our current statistics show that Oracle was unable to grow its blade business during 2011 (unlike most other leading blade vendors).
- Inconsistent messaging means that Oracle has failed to dispel market speculation that volume, general-purpose computers are not strategic to the company's future.
The acquisition of Silicon Graphics Rackable Systems in 2009 brought together two companies with very different past histories. But a highly complementary modular server strategy has emerged. The SGI ICE X and SGI 8400 blade-based clusters build on SGI-originated technology, primarily addressing the HPC market, where SGI has an enviable market track record.
Meanwhile, the SGI CloudRack C2 and X2 skinless server families build on the traditional scale-out strengths of Rackable Systems. Finally, the new Prism XL also falls into the skinless server category, but is aimed at extreme scale-out HPC workloads. Recognizing that the Silicon Graphics name had better global brand recognition (the Rackable Systems brand was little known outside North America), the company made the bold decision to adopt the SGI name in all markets. Consequently, the new SGI is able to leverage both installed bases, albeit with the challenge of educating the market that the SGI brand now has meaning for more than just HPC users.
- SGI is one of the most established and recognized HPC leaders, with a significant installed base across many geographies and vertical markets.
- SGI has new cross-selling opportunities among the Rackable Systems installed base.
- The company is committed to technology innovation, particularly around extreme vertical and horizontal scaling, and advanced graphics integration.
- The convergence of SGI and Rackable Systems technology requires comprehensive positioning of modular product lines to avoid confusion.
- Integrating two corporate product lines has resulted in many legacy Silicon Graphics and Rackable Systems users having nonstrategic technology that will need migration to the slimmer product portfolio that SGI now sells.
- The new organization must dispel the myth that SGI's market presence is mainly limited to HPC and markets with similar workload characteristics.
We review and adjust our inclusion criteria for Magic Quadrants and MarketScopes as markets change. As a result of these adjustments, the mix of vendors in any Magic Quadrant or MarketScope may change over time. A vendor appearing in a Magic Quadrant or MarketScope one year and not the next does not necessarily indicate that we have changed our opinion of that vendor. This may be a reflection of a change in the market and, therefore, changed evaluation criteria, or a change of focus by a vendor.
One vendor was added for 2012. Huawei has been actively selling blade servers for many years, with well over $5 million in revenue, and marketing initiatives are now more international, with growth across Asia/Pacific and penetrating EMEA and the Americas.
No vendors were dropped for the 2012 update.
Blades and skinless servers constitute a segment of the overall server market that is defined by its modular deployment, and most (but not all) server vendors invest in one or more modular server technologies. The main catalysts for inclusion in this Magic Quadrant are an active international market presence, and sales volume of at least $5 million during 2010. This means obvious inclusion for the two vendors (HP and IBM) that represent the majority of blade shipments worldwide, plus eight vendors that have a strong commitment to the market, albeit sometimes in niche deployments. A small number of blade vendors were excluded either because their market presence is geographically very narrow (that is, they support just one or two countries), or because they are legacy vendors that mainly address an installed-base market where there is little or no new business that we can evaluate.
Until recently, blades were regarded as a distinct server form factor that addressed different market needs, compared with tower-, rack- and frame-based servers. But all blades, by definition, leverage a rack-based topology (usually based on the standard, 19-inch form factor). With each generation, the distinction between blades and conventional rack-based servers becomes more blurred. The distinction is even harder to maintain with the advent of skinless servers, which, like blades, utilize common system components, such as shared power supplies and cooling fans, and enable easy hardware provisioning.
Unlike blades, skinless servers usually are deployed horizontally in trays that fit into the rack, but connectivity is equally proprietary. Thus, the provisioning similarities with blades are obvious. Blades (and skinless servers) become hybrid solutions that exploit the standardization of the 19-inch rack form factor, while imposing proprietary integration within the chassis.
Blade market execution is achieved through a combination of three methods:
- Large, established vendors with a strong installed base of rack-optimized servers are in a natural position to advocate the use of blades as a mainstream evolution.
- Equally well-known vendors that have strong data center awareness (but in a different hardware discipline) can use the blade server market as an adjacency play to extend data center reach.
- Smaller vendors (plus larger vendors that are more specialized by geography or vertical industry) can leverage the advantages of blades for certain workload requirements, where they can maintain a viable presence in a more niche-oriented market.
This creates a polarized market reflected in the Magic Quadrant, where every vendor is pursuing a blade server strategy that yields profitable business. For the larger vendors, blades introduce a new positioning challenge that can impact execution effectiveness, while more niche-oriented vendors must work to evolve their target markets and maintain added value (see Table 1).
Source: Gartner (March 2012)
Gartner believes that the data center and the infrastructure within it will become steadily more granular and component-based; and blades are the natural stepping stone toward this state. Vendors currently at the leading edge of data center fabrics are typically using blades as the foundation for their work (although equally viable exceptions exist — most notably, the Oracle Exadata/Exalogic integrated systems). Blades put an additional onus on the functionality and close integration of server management tools, which favors vendors that are leaders in this field, or that have strong management tool integration with third-party partners.
The latest generations of x86, RISC and Itanium processors are enabling blades to address more challenging workloads. x86 blade servers with up to four sockets and 40 cores are becoming viable, and even larger non-x86 blade configurations have been introduced. This, in turn, puts pressure on the I/O capabilities of blades — be it server-to-server connectivity for increased scaling, or storage/network connectivity.
Workload scaling is further enhanced by increased memory capacity and innovations like SSD support. Leading-edge vendors will be investing in more processor and memory aggregation to address larger and more complex workloads, with multichassis and even multirack aggregation as the ultimate manifestation. By aggregation, we mean the logical and scalable integration of multiple components, such as CPU and memory. Meanwhile, skinless server designs offer some vendors an even denser approach that suits extreme-scaling workload requirements. Where absolute maximum throughput, at the lowest cost of deployment and with a minimum demand for sophisticated management tools or hardware resilience, is king, even blade servers can be over-engineered for the task (see Table 2).
Source: Gartner (March 2012)
After a decade of shipments and product evolution, blade market leaders typically need to have built an enduring track record across multiple geographies, vertical markets and workload scenarios, or they will need to make a very strong and sustained market entry. This is a highly polarized market, where two entrenched vendors already command more than 70% of worldwide business by revenue and units. Although we predict organic growth for the market, the polarized nature presents a challenge to other vendors seeking significant volume growth, as sustained achievement can only come from the partial failure of one or both of the two leaders.
Challengers are likely to be vendors with a strong global presence that are focusing their blade strategies on a broad set of target clients, rather than on pure innovation. As the markets for rack-optimized servers and blade servers gradually converge, and new market opportunities such as skinless servers emerge, mainstream server vendors with a strong natural ability to execute will increasingly target the modular server market.
While this is a market that will always attract innovators, the primary blade market is stabilizing and maturing rapidly. Visionary vendors in this market will either represent the discontinuous leading edge of the market, or will be large vendors with a plan to drive market success through technology innovation and a narrower product portfolio.
The early pacemakers in the blade server market have all either been acquired, or have stalled as a result of the 2009 recession. But this is a market that addresses specialized edge niches of the broader server market well, and this will naturally drive innovation by small vendors that may only address certain geographies, verticalized markets (such as HPC, analytics or cloud infrastructure) or specific workload situations. Consequently, this is a Magic Quadrant that will always have a strong complement of Niche Players that drives real innovation in their target markets, but whose small size or narrower geographic concentration forces them to focus their energies to maintain relevance and deliver business value.
Blades represent an important — but transitional — stage in the evolution of servers as separate, discrete designs (especially towers and frames) give way to modular designs, and the boundaries between servers, storage and networking become increasingly blurred. This creates an increasing overlap of functionality between product categories that were previously more clearly delineated. These boundaries are being further tested as more vendors launch integrated systems, which are mostly — but not always — based on bladed infrastructure. In reality, all blade servers are examples of a fabric-enabled architecture, due to the switch-based backplane or midplane they exploit. Blades represent a more proprietary investment, due to the lack of hardware form factor interoperability standards, and the growing dependence on proprietary management tools and virtual I/O solutions.
Due to their modular nature, blades offer compelling facilities-oriented benefits, such as improved cabling, rapid hardware provisioning (including the ability to replace failed components), high computing density, energy-efficient design and increasing management automation. However, blades deliver few, if any, incremental application benefits, compared with their rack-based peers. Blades are also not the only choice for modular deployment; rack-optimized servers deliver some modularity benefits, and skinless servers now represent even higher-density deployment for workloads like analytics that demand extreme levels of horizontal scaling. Because many vendors position their blade and skinless servers as part of a standard modular server portfolio, the nascent market status of skinless servers is reflected in this year's blade server Magic Quadrant (as it was in 2011).
Blade servers represent a much greater lock-in effect than regular rack servers impose, and ROI calculations need to be more stringently applied. When calculating TCU, users need to consider the longevity of the blade chassis as the most significant investment; bought at the right time in its life span, a chassis should provide several years of active life and the ability to incrementally add resource or refresh obsolete components over time. Users should carefully match their blade needs and investment objectives to vendor portfolios, product life cycles and vendor strategies for modular architectures as a whole.
The overall server market is gradually transitioning toward a modular data center infrastructure — from building to rack to individual compute elements — that will mask (and ultimately hide) the barriers between discrete compute, storage and networking technology classes, and the management thereof. Blades are not an essential part of this technology convergence (as Oracle is demonstrating with its strategy based on rack optimized technology), but the modular nature of blades makes them a natural fit for the trend, and the blade market is growing steadily as a result.
The emergence of skinless servers, which share many common attributes with blade servers, is having a dampening effect on blade market growth as interest grows in new generation workloads like extreme analytics and in-memory databases, where blades are often overengineered for the task. This low-end cannibalization of the blade server market is forcing vendors to position blades higher up the food chain, resulting in greater conflict between the optimum use of blades and rack optimized designs.
The original concept of blade servers was introduced to the market more than a decade ago by small, specialist companies, such as RLX Technologies and FiberCycle Networks. The target for this first generation was large Internet data centers, and early demand was driven by the short-lived dot-com boom. When this fragile market collapsed, mainstream server vendors introduced blades for the broader enterprise data center market.
The most prevalent applications for blade servers tend to fall into the front end and midtier of the data center. Front-end Web tier applications depend more on fast throughput than on raw processing power, so they may be installed on blade servers with just one or two processors. Blade servers for front-end applications may need just one internal disk, or perhaps two for mirroring; increasingly, they will leverage SAN-based storage, but will retain the OS state onboard. Midtier application logic usually requires more powerful blade configurations, with more memory and I/O capacity. These larger blade servers can support transaction processing applications or small database applications, and can be a suitable basis for virtualization hosting.
Larger blade servers may require more internal disk space on the blade server, but
are increasingly likely to rely on data stored on a SAN. Early examples of blade-based
data center fabrics generally depend on the ability to boot from a SAN, so the blade
becomes stateless, with the role of onboard storage declining as a result. The market
for hosted virtual desktops is another fast-growing segment where the use of blades
is viable. Blade servers may also be clustered to form an HPC cluster. Users have
frequently regarded blades and server virtualization as alternative methods to gain
more granular resource utilization, but the modern generation of blades is as well-suited
to the use of virtualization tools as any other form factor.
Ability to Execute
Product/Service: Core goods and services offered by the vendor that compete in/serve the defined market. This includes current product/service capabilities, quality, feature sets and skills, whether offered natively or through OEM agreements/partnerships as defined in the market definition and detailed in the subcriteria.
Overall Viability (Business Unit, Financial, Strategy, Organization): Viability includes an assessment of the overall organization's financial health, the financial and practical success of the business unit, and the likelihood that the individual business unit will continue investing in the product, will continue offering the product and will advance the state of the art within the organization's portfolio of products.
Sales Execution/Pricing: The vendor's capabilities in all pre-sales activities and the structure that supports them. This includes deal management, pricing and negotiation, pre-sales support and the overall effectiveness of the sales channel.
Market Responsiveness and Track Record: Ability to respond, change direction, be flexible and achieve competitive success as opportunities develop, competitors act, customer needs evolve and market dynamics change. This criterion also considers the vendor's history of responsiveness.
Marketing Execution: The clarity, quality, creativity and efficacy of programs designed to deliver the organization's message to influence the market, promote the brand and business, increase awareness of the products, and establish a positive identification with the product/brand and organization in the minds of buyers. This "mind share" can be driven by a combination of publicity, promotional initiatives, thought leadership, word-of-mouth and sales activities.
Customer Experience: Relationships, products and services/programs that enable clients to be successful with the products evaluated. Specifically, this includes the ways customers receive technical support or account support. This can also include ancillary tools, customer support programs (and the quality thereof), availability of user groups, service-level agreements and so on.
Operations: The ability of the organization to meet its goals and commitments. Factors include the quality of the organizational structure, including skills, experiences, programs, systems and other vehicles that enable the organization to operate effectively and efficiently on an ongoing basis.
Completeness of Vision
Market Understanding: Ability of the vendor to understand buyers' wants and needs and to translate those into products and services. Vendors that show the highest degree of vision listen to and understand buyers' wants and needs, and can shape or enhance those with their added vision.
Marketing Strategy: A clear, differentiated set of messages consistently communicated throughout the organization and externalized through the website, advertising, customer programs and positioning statements.
Sales Strategy: The strategy for selling products that uses the appropriate network of direct and indirect sales, marketing, service and communication affiliates that extend the scope and depth of market reach, skills, expertise, technologies, services and the customer base.
Offering (Product) Strategy: The vendor's approach to product development and delivery that emphasizes differentiation, functionality, methodology and feature sets as they map to current and future requirements.
Business Model: The soundness and logic of the vendor's underlying business proposition.
Vertical/Industry Strategy: The vendor's strategy to direct resources, skills and offerings to meet the specific needs of individual market segments, including vertical markets.
Innovation: Direct, related, complementary and synergistic layouts of resources, expertise or capital for investment, consolidation, defensive or pre-emptive purposes.
Geographic Strategy: The vendor's strategy to direct resources, skills and offerings to meet the specific needs of geographies outside the "home" or native geography, either directly or through partners, channels and subsidiaries as appropriate for that geography and market.