The End of ‘Good Enough’ Computing

During the heyday of the dot-com boom, then-HP CEO Carly Fiorina espoused a notion called “good enough” computing. Despite significant performance differences between x86 servers and Unix and other enterprise-class systems, the dramatically lower cost of x86-based products would cause organizations to rethink their computing priorities and adopt, buy and deploy x86 whenever and wherever possible, she maintained.

“Good enough” computing has been an ongoing theme in data center strategizing and purchasing ever since then, despite x86 detractors actively using the term as a pejorative. Quarter over quarter, year over year, systems based on Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron microprocessors outsold traditional enterprise-class systems by far.

More Bang for Business Bucks

Today, x86 dominates data center markets and applications, including general-purpose computing, high performance and supercomputing, cloud computing, Big Data analytics and in-memory applications.

More importantly, x86-based solutions for the most part are priced far less than alternative system solutions. While IBM’s Power Systems and Oracle’s SPARC solutions constitute just 6 percent of the total number of four-way and above servers sold last year, those sales accounted for some 52 percent of the total revenues spent in that class of systems, noted Intel SVP Diane Bryant, GM of the Data Center Group, at Intel’s recent Xeon E7 v2 launch event in San Francisco.

In other words, as they have done for years, x86 solutions continue to deliver far more bang for the bucks business computing customers spend. Most important of all, even as x86 systems continue to deliver terrific value, they have moved further and further up the mission-critical IT stack, inevitably and steadily displacing traditional Unix and other enterprise solutions, and placing those technologies under increasing pressure.

However, that last point exposes a flaw in Fiorina’s “good enough” concept: While the common triumph of low-price commodity products over high-price proprietary goods comes straight out of Business School 101, it fails to take into account what happens when “good enough” technologies eventually match or even surpass the performance of higher-cost products. Such an event would be revolutionary in the extreme — yet that is arguably what has occurred with the arrival of Intel’s Xeon Processor E7 v2 family.

From ‘Good Enough’ to Exceptional

As a result of Intel’s innovations, including twice the performance, triple the memory capacity and quadruple the I/O throughput of previous-generation Xeon chips, systems based on the new processors will deliver excellent or exceptional performance in enterprise applications, from data-intensive, in-memory analytics to the most critical of mission-critical workloads.

Those are certainly the advanced markets Intel and its system manufacturing and software partners are initially targeting. However, the benefits offered by Intel’s new Xeon E7 v2 also extend backward to encompass use cases where Xeon is already deeply entrenched.

Those areas, particularly cloud computing and other heavily virtualized infrastructures, along with high-performance and supercomputing, also should see significant improvements in both overall performance and total cost of ownership.

That steady rise in quality impacts virtually every sort of x86-based application and customer, and fleshes out the final dimension of Carly Fiorina’s “good enough” sobriquet.

Evolution, Not Revolution

The fact is that the IT industry has long encouraged a sort of stratification that targets enterprise-class features and solutions at the large companies that have the need and means to pay for them. This only makes sense, and vendors have long profited from that market dynamic.

At the same time, Intel’s efforts around x86 technologies have raised the general quality of computing as a whole to the point that customers today have access to affordable technologies that would have been beyond their reach or requirements a half decade or so ago. That is the truly revolutionary issue Fiorina only hinted at but that Intel has worked steadily to make real.

This does not mean that sales of traditional enterprise systems will crater or halt anytime soon. However, it will become increasingly difficult for vendors to charge a premium for business-critical computing and analytics attributes that are becoming increasingly commonplace.

That the new Xeon E7 v2 family is just the latest iteration of this process — with additional innovations expected in future generations of Intel products — means the “good enough” revolution finally may be over. However, the ongoing evolution of x86 will continue to change the face, functions and fate of business computing for years to come.

Charles King

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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