Thursday, September 13, 2012
Google, Facebook Top Buyers of Intel Server Chips
These chips are about 20% of Intel's revenues (Intel: Tremendous Growth of Clouds' Servers ).
Intel Confirms Decline of Server Giants HP, Dell, and IBM
In 2008, says Intel bigwig Diane Bryant, three familiar names bought far more server chips than any other company on earth. That year, she remembers, HP, Dell, and IBM accounted for 75 percent of the revenue Intel raked in from the sale of processors destined for the beefy computer servers that drive the internet and so much of the software used inside the world’s businesses
Intel sells a vast majority of the world’s server chips, so this was a sure sign that a vast majority of the world’s businesses were buying their servers from HP, Dell, and IBM.
But just four years later, Bryant says, the landscape has completely changed. Today, she explains, eight server makers account for 75 percent of Intel’s server chip revenues, and at least one of those eight doesn’t even sell servers. It only makes servers for itself. “Google is something like number five on that list,” Bryant told us on Monday evening, during a dinner with reporters in downtown San Francisco.
That’s right, Google is likely the world’s fifth largest server maker.
Over a decade ago, Google started designing its own machines for the massive data centers that underpin its web empire, looking to save both power and cost as the empire expanded to epic proportions, and this was only the beginning of a movement away from traditional server sellers such as HP, Dell, and IBM. As Bryant points out, other companies are now buying machines directly from “original design manufacturers,” or ODMs, in Asia, working to cut costs in much the same way. This includes Facebook, and according to a former employee of one large ODM, it includes Amazon as well.
In short, some of the biggest server buyers are cutting out the big-name middlemen. Those ODMs are some of the same companies that manufacture machines on behalf of the HPs and the Dells.
Bryant did not list all eight of Intel’s biggest customers. But she did name Quanta and SuperMicro as ODMs who are “growing up into OEMs” — i.e., original equipment manufacturers that sell directly to server buyers — and she mentioned Wiwynn, the new U.S. subsidiary of ODM Wistron. The whole idea behind Wiwynn is to sell directly to server buyers here in the States.
She also said that new server makers in China, including Huawei, are now having a big effect on the worldwide market.
The Big Switch
In 2008, Diane Bryant left Intel’s server group to take over as the company’s CIO, but in January of this year, she returned to lead the group as vice president and general manager. When she arrived, she didn’t recognize the place.
For one, the name had changed. The server group had morphed into the datacenter and connected systems group, encompassing not only server chips but also storage and networking hardware. But the bigger change was that HP, Dell, and IBM were no longer the dominant forces of years gone by.
Dell and IBM did not immediately respond when asked about Bryant’s view of today’s server market. But an HP spokesperson said her comments were inconsistent with the latest server market stats from research outfit IDC, which still put the combined market share of HP, Dell, and IBM at 73.9 percent, down slightly from 78.2 percent in 2008.
‘Google is something like number five on that list.’
— Diane BryantIt should be noted, however, that research operations such as IDC and Gartner don’t have the best view into direct sales by the ODMs — let alone Google’s highly secretive hardware operation — and these hidden parts of the market are increasingly important. It’s the big web players that are moving away from the HPs and the Dells, and most of these same companies offer large “cloud” services that let other businesses run their operations without purchasing servers in the first place.
To be sure, as the market shifts, HP, Dell, and IBM are working to reinvent themselves. Dell, for instance, launched a new business unit dedicated to building custom gear for the big web players — Dell Data Center Services — and all these outfits are now offering their own cloud services. But the tide is against them.
Google now calls itself one of the world’s largest hardware makers, and Bryant’s comments show just how big it has become. Asked about its relationship with Intel, a Google spokesperson merely said: “We work with a variety of vendors to manufacture the equipment we use in our data centers.” But it has long been an open secret that Google buys directly from Intel — and that it buys so much.
This summer, Urs Hölzle told us that Google designs just about all the servers used in its worldwide network of data centers, and though he declined to discuss where these machines are manufactured, it appears that the company contracts with manufacturers in Asia and elsewhere in the world, providing these builders not only with the server designs but with chips and other hardware purchased from component suppliers such as Intel.
Google Not the Only One
In August, Bryant told us that Google is the only web company that buys chips directly from Intel. But Facebook also designs its own servers, and a source familiar with Facebook’s operation tells us that the company purchases directly from Intel too.
However, the source said, Facebook uses a “just-in-time” purchase model, meaning it does not actually acquire and store the chips itself. Intel sends Facebook’s chips directly to manufacturers such as Quanta and Wistron when they’re needed for manufacturing, the source said.
This means that Facebook avoids getting stuck with a warehouse full of old chips it doesn’t want. It simply buys chips as it needs them.
In any event, Facebook is also a big part of the move away from the HPs and the Dells. It has even “open sourced” its server designs, hoping that others will buy similar gear through the ODMs and drive down prices even further.
The social networking giants shows that the lines between the web players and the ODMs are often blurred. Facebook designs its servers in tandem with the ODMs and other hardware makers, and though it negotiates directly with Intel for chips, the ODMs do all the manufacturing. Which one is the server maker?
Though Bryant did not rank the rest of Intel’s largest server chip customers, we’re guessing that Quanta now sits quite high on the list. According to an ex-Google engineer, Quanta has worked with Google in the past on its custom-built networking gear. Facebook is quite open about its relationship with Quanta. And Quanta itself says it has been selling servers, storage gear, and networking switches to multiple web outfits, which jibes with what an ex-Quanta man has told us.
Typically, the big web companies say very little about who they’re buying gear from. Companies such as Google and Amazon see their hardware operations as a competitive advantage best kept hidden from rivals. But Diane Bryant provides another look behind the scenes. And one thing is for sure: HP, Dell, and IBM aren’t the powers they used to be.