IBM's potential x86 server sale to Lenovo highlights oncoming train

IBM famously unloaded its PC business to Lenovo well before the post PC era hit. Is Big Blue bailing on commodity servers before the floor falls out?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

IBM is reportedly talking to Lenovo about selling its x86-based server business to Lenovo and the move would make a lot of sense.

If the talks, flagged in the Wall Street Journal and CRN, sound familiar that's because Big Blue famously unloaded its PC business to Lenovo in a win-win deal. Lenovo went on to be one of the premier PC makers and IBM focused on software and services and got ahead of trends such as analytics.

To say the IBM's PC situation then and today's server state of affairs rhyme would be an understatement. You could argue the situations are the same thing. When IBM offloaded its PC unit, no one saw tablets coming. All IBM knew is that the margins stunk and it wanted higher value wares. The post-PC era was years away.

Also: Servers, datacenters to see same upheaval as PC industry | IBM's Q1 closes weak as software, mainframe deals slip | IBM reportedly in talks to sell server biz to Lenovo

Fast forward to the server market, which is ripe for disruption. Server sales are doing ok. Companies will have to buy servers right? Of course they will---for about another three to five years. The reality is servers are going in the following directions:

Specialization by workload. Think IBM's PureSystems and Oracle's Exadata efforts.

  1. Commodity-ville on the x86 front. You can't ignore that companies like Google and Facebook go right to white box makers for servers. That reality isn't so hot for HP, Dell and IBM.
  2. You need to own the silicon and intellectual property to really work the server business. IBM's Power systems won't go anywhere. Oracle has SPARC. Hewlett-Packard is going processor agnostic with Moonshot, a server line that appears to be innovative.
  3. Fewer server buyers. As companies move to the cloud, demand for compute will only increase. The problem. Server makers will be selling in bulk to fewer customers and cloud computing farms. There will only be so many cloud providers. Enterprises large enough to roll their own data centers will be few and far between.

Now let's talk timing here. The server market won't unravel tomorrow. It won't unravel in a few years. But Armageddon will occur and the clock starts ticking right about now.

Why? An enterprise that buys a server right now will start a tax depreciation clock that will run about three years. Once those three years are up and those assets depreciate, the CXO in charge will weigh the costs and benefits of the cloud vs. running a data center, server cluster or whatever. I'll bet that in three years the cloud will win by a wide margin. Let's face it---the cloud is already starting to win and all you have to do is show up at one of Amazon Web Services' customer powwows to know the writing is on the server rack.

IBM may unload its commodity server business on Lenovo. It's a smart move.


On Thursday, I caught up with Cycle Computing CEO Jason Stowe. There's a lot to like about Cycle Computing. First, the company is bootstrapped so there's instant respect. Second, Cycle Computing is at the forefront of making high performance computing clusters for the masses. And third, Cycle Computing has top insurance and pharmaceutical companies as customers. Cycle Computing had massive customers from day one. In other words, Cycle Computing is the real deal, hooked up with Amazon Web Services and will enable a lot of science to happen just by democratizing HPC for smaller companies.

Stowe noted that Cycle Computing is starting to land manufacturing and engineering customers now for its HPC management software and cloud connections. In other words, this HPC for the masses is catching on. If you play this out, there will be fewer servers sold because folks will be using Rackspace, AWS or some other former hardware focused vendor.

Today, it's big data and research compute driving Cycle Computing demand. Tomorrow every company will have the mathematic models and horsepower to simulate just about anything. You won't buy your own servers for that computing power.

Stowe said servers will become like wheat fields not things you name. "Today servers are hugged, named and managers know their quirks. There's an attachment. In the future server clusters will be more like wheat fields. You grow the wheat, reap and sow, eat and replant the seeds. There's no attachment to the wheat," said Stowe.

In other words, Stowe's excellent analogy on servers and meeting compute demand translates into cloud farms and fields. Most companies are going to hit the brakes on new server buying as soon as the depreciation ends and new compute demand has to be met. Play this out and the profit margins on servers aren't going to look so hot.

IBM sees all of the servergeddon scenarios developing and that's why it's ditching its commodity server business now. Let Lenovo, which has the scale and ambition to do the commodity server game, carry the ball from here and duke it out with HP and Dell.

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