Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/15/unix_gcg_study/

Sun ravaged, IBM lauded in Unix server study

Bad moon on the rise

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Servers, 15th December 2005 17:52 GMT

A new study on the major players in the Unix server market has declared IBM the clear customer favorite and brought to light some serious issues with Sun Microsystems' product line. Most alarmingly for Sun, the company appears to have lost its cachet as the dominant Unix player and done so while alienating customers. Sun finished last in almost every one of the Gabriel Consulting Group (GCG) survey's categories, spanning technology performance, customer satisfaction and software tools.

The survey polled 197 corporate Unix customers with particular attention paid to the opinions of administrators as opposed to the CIOs in their ivory towers. "We have found that people on the data center floor have a much better idea of what works well (and not so well) in their infrastructure and are generally not shy about expressing their views – both positive and negative," GCG said. Close to 75 per cent of the respondents hailed from North America, and the median participant managed between 25 and 50 Unix boxes.

GCG does a nice job of giving us an idea of who uses what. Only about 20 per cent of customers have standardized on a single Unix vendor. Around 46 per cent of customers tap two vendors and 34 per cent have gear from all three of the big boys. If you have standardized on one vendor, then you're probably running on Sun systems, although this hasn't helped the vendor too much of late.

"Sun was the major beneficiary of the UNIX buying spree in the 1990s, building an installed base that is estimated by some to top that of HP and IBM combined," GCG said. "While Sun has the advantage of a massive installed base, it hasn’t paid off in terms of sales for the last several years. IBM and HP have caught up to and surpassed, albeit by a small margin, Sun in terms of overall UNIX system sales."

Starting with the overall results, IBM clobbered the competition. According to GCG's methodology, IBM secured a VPI (Vendor Preference Index) of 105. HP followed at 85, and Sun placed last at 80. As GCG notes, IBM has enjoyed a solid run since the introduction of Power 4 and then Power 5, gaining significant market share. Meanwhile, HP and Sun have struggled to keep pace with their RISC chips, and HP customers have also had to face the Itanium question.

Things don't improve for Sun as GCG moves to individual categories. Sun finished third - or in this case last - in Raw Performance, Processor Performance, Observed Performance, Operating System Features, Operating System Quality, System Management Suite, Partitioning/Virtualization Suite, RAS Features, Overall Technology and Technology Futures. That's quite a list.

In nearly every case, IBM finished first in these categories with HP just ahead of Sun. HP did manage to edge out IBM on the System Management Suite and Partitioning/Virtualization Features categories.

"These results are important as they signal that Sun’s immense installed base may be vulnerable to predations from their better-funded competitors," GCG said. "As the smallest of the major UNIX players, Sun doesn’t have room to make mistakes or take any business for granted. The results of this survey indicate that Sun may be doing exactly that by not paying adequate attention to their installed base nor making them feel comfortable with Sun’s technology and future directions."

Without question, there appears to be a disconnect between what Sun is telling the public and how its technology is received by the customer. No vendor spends more time hawking its flavor of Unix these days than Sun. It has pushed and pushed and pushed Solaris 10 in front of the press and customers, billing the OS as years ahead of the competition. Most of the Sun users surveyed were likely on Solaris 9, but even that OS was said to be fantastic. So why are customers knocking this crown jewel?

The lack of enthusiasm for Sun's processor performance is more understandable. Sun suffered with UltraSPARC III delays, and the chip ultimately did not stack up that well against rival chips, particularly IBM's revamped Power line. HP should receive compliments for keeping its customer base happy during a difficult Itanic transition. The GCG survey shows that HP users are some of the most loyal folks around and appear tolerant of the server chip shifting and cut backs in Unix investment.

It's hard to grasp the intangibles at hand in this survey. The broad dissatisfaction with Sun gear would appear to indicate a worrying state of affairs for the vendor. As it's trying to make a recovery, Sun is struggling to maintain its image as the Unix king, while IBM is thriving. This is bad news for Sun, as it's most dependent of the three vendors on Unix revenue for the overall health of its business.

Looking ahead, Sun does have some promising technology. Solaris 10 and UltraSPARC IV are much better than their predecessors, and customers are gradually making their way to these new products. In addition, Sun is innovating on the low-end with the UltraSPARC T1 chip, while the competition has stuck with standard technology.

The GCG study notes that an astonishing 50 per cent of customers surveyed think HP will exit the Unix market in the coming years. In addition, Sun ranked first as the vendor most likely to dominate the Unix market in 5 years with HP finishing last.

"Currently, the HP installed base seems to remain, for the most part, loyal to the brand despite some of the challenges they have faced with the slow migration to Itanium and HP management changes," GCG said. "Still, HP has plenty to be concerned about, namely customer perceptions of HP’s overall technology vs. IBM, system scalability, and their commitment to UNIX."

This would seem to confirm that Sun's strategy of going after HP's user base during the Itanium transition is a good idea. Although, one could argue that Sun needs to place more emphasis on catching up to IBM and fast, as well.

You can find more information on the survey here. ®