Intel Pitches Value, Not Performance, in Xeon Launch

By trumpeting new energy and power-management features, Intel and its partners hope to make a business case for Xeon 5550.

In the current economic climate, a drop in IT spending now seems inevitable. Industry veterans stress, however, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Attrition on the IT spending front encourages vendors to focus less on technology as a key selling point and more on business value in promoting their products. Intel Corp.'s launch late last month of its first Nehalem-based Xeon chip (the Xeon 5550) was a textbook case in point. As expected, three leading server OEMs -- Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), and IBM Corp. -- all announced new Xeon 5550-based servers.

Unlike past launches, however, all three players were comparatively muted on the technology and performance topics -- choosing, instead, to tout cost-saving management tools or vendor-specific (and, again, cost-saving) blade designs.

Consider Big Blue, which announced several new Xeon 5550-based designs -- including the new BladeCenter HS22. What officials really wanted to trumpet was IBM's value-add -- in this case, cost-saving management and power-reduction features, including what Big Blue claims are "lower wattage requirements" that (in the case of the new HS22 blade systems) can cut energy costs by up to 93 percent. To be sure, IBM also talked up the Xeon 5550's performance, but the salient point is that -- in both Big Blue's marketing and the messages of its competitors -- speed was definitely second to value.

"Not only do these announcements continue our strong commitment to invest in and deliver leading x86 servers that address our customer's needs, System x supports multiple architectures and is designed to lower ownership costs and enable new paradigms such as Cloud computing," said Adalio Sanchez, general manager for IBM's System x unit, in a statement.

Value and cost-cutting were all the rage. HP, for example, introduced its new ProLiant G6 server line, a Xeon 5550-powered system with an alliterative twist: a "Sea of Sensors" capability (a feature, HP officials stressed, not a gimmick) designed to make it easier for customers to monitor thermal levels.

HP, too, touted the requisite speed improvements, it just didn't push them as much as other more value-oriented amenities. With the ProLiant G6, HP also aimed for flexibility: it announced 11 different tower-, rack-, and blade-based configurations. That's the largest ProLiant rollout in HP's (or the erstwhile Compaq Computer Corp.'s) history, officials claim.

"Now more than ever, customers want the best possible return on their server investments," said Christine Reischl, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Industry Standard Servers (ISS) group, in a prepared release. "Building on HP's long history of hardware and software development, G6 brings together the best HP innovations in energy efficiency, virtualization and services to enable our customers to do more with less."

The ProLiant G6's Sea of Sensors feature makes use of nearly three dozen discrete sensors to monitor thermal activity. This helps HP's management software dynamically adjust fan speeds, I/O processing, and even memory utilization. In tandem with the ProLiant G6 launch, HP unveiled its Common Power Slot design that lets customers choose from four available power supply configurations to appropriately size their workload requirements. The new ProLiant G6 also supports Dynamic Power Capping, a technology HP says can dynamically "cap" the power drawn by servers. This isn't a hard limit, of course: Dynamic Power Capping ratchets up overall utilization (chiefly, by shifting workloads and reallocating resources between and among servers) while capping power usage.

The change in tone, particularly in HP's case, resonated with industry veteran Gordon Haff, a principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata.

"HP didn't take [the Nehalem launch] as an opportunity to pile on an endless litany of speeds and feeds. Sure, it provided me with specifications but in the vein of supporting data rather than the core of the announcement," Haff wrote on his Illuminata blog, adding that "HP similarly focused primarily on higher-level operational and business value messages" at its Technology Solutions Group (TSG) analyst meeting last month.

He sees it as an unmistakable about-face on the part of the technologically-oriented HP. "[I]f you haven't been a long-time HP follower as I have, the fact that technology isn't front and center may seem unremarkable," Haff continues. "Sure, IT vendors have a proclivity to getting lost down in the weeds, but the largest and most sophisticated of those vendors -- of which HP is certainly one -- do understand that customers buy outcomes rather than individual products."

Ditto for industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT.

At such a time, in such a climate, any would-be technology "solution" must pass a simple test, King argues. "Companies want to know exactly how IT will add to or subtract from their bottom lines, with an emphasis on the former, before they consider any sort of purchase," he observes.

Thanks to its new virtualization feature set -- the Xeon 5550 boasts triple the memory bandwidth of its predecessors and (in many OEM reference configurations) is outfitted with Intel Corp.'s new 82599 10 Gigabit Ethernet Controller -- the latest Xeon has at least a few things going for it on the ROI front, King contends.

"Intel's decision to substantially enhance the virtualization capabilities of the Xeon 5500 has implications beyond the cloud," he comments, adding that "without virtualization, the inexorable march of x86/64-based servers toward enterprise datacenters would have slowed or even halted long ago."

On the other hand, he concedes, the IT spending climate looks really bleak -- both Gartner Inc. and Forrester Research are projecting a 3 percent or larger drop in IT spending -- so, realistically speaking, how well will Xeon 5550-based offerings perform? Or -- to put it another way -- will Xeon 5550 sales outpace the requisite factors (server upgrades, planned retirements, etc.) that typically drive growth? "Perhaps," King allows, "for some solutions, projects and organizations."

King is far less sanguine about the Xeon 5550 as the giant killer -- or as a Big Iron giant killer, at any rate -- that Intel and some of its partners would make of it. "[W]hile the Xeon 5500 sets the bar high in comparison to previous generation Intel processors, it does not qualify as the UNIX/RISC/mainframe killer that Intel and some others would like the market to believe," King concludes.

"For years now, Intel and other x86/64 proponents have forecast a utopian day when the world's data centers would banish 'proprietary' computing platforms and instead hum a homogenous … industry standard … tune. While it boasts notable capabilities, the appearance of the Xeon 5500 is not likely to hasten that particular revolution to any serious degree."