As Dell and HPE revamp, Lenovo sets sights on enterprise cloud servers

Lenovo plans to build converged and custom servers for on-premise and off-premise cloud installations

The cloud -- both on-premise and off-premise -- is transforming servers and data centers, and many companies are getting vendors to customize hardware for specific cloud-based workloads.

Lenovo wants a bigger chunk of that market and is working toward offering custom-built converged servers targeted at specific tasks. The company is also looking for a larger opportunity with custom hardware for large-scale customers.

Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon are designing their own servers for mega-data centers. These servers are designed to handle workloads specific to the company's requirements, like responding to search requests, or recognizing people in uploaded images.

Converged servers are tightly integrated systems, with software stacks tuned to the hardware. Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Dell Technologies are already building servers for applications like Oracle and SAP HANA. But both companies are going through huge changes, with HPE getting smaller after shedding its software unit and Dell Technologies growing larger by integrating EMC.

In the industry upheaval, Lenovo sees opportunities as rivals adapt to internal changes. Peter Hortensius, CTO and head of strategy of Lenovo's Data Center Group, sees the cloud defining the way the company builds servers in the future.

"We don't have many converged opportunities, we are working towards that," Hortensius said.

Lenovo's offerings are mostly based on industry-standard x86 chips and server parts. The company's specialized server offerings include storage-focused systems, but it also bundles offerings like VMWare into servers.

Cloud providers like Microsoft and Amazon's AWS tightly control their software stack. As companies develop their integrated stacks, the server requirements and economics of building servers change, Hortensius said.

Lenovo acquired IBM's x86 server business two years ago, and earlier this year restructured the division, putting Hortensius in charge of developing future technologies. After a modest start with offerings geared to small and medium-sized businesses, Lenovo this year restructured the server organization to focus on large enterprise customers.

Lenovo's server shipments in the second quarter this year totaled 235,260 units, growing by 5.9 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago, according to Gartner. It is the third largest server vendor behind Dell and HPE.

China is a big server market for Lenovo, and the company has the upper hand because it's a local vendor. Chinese companies tend to buy local computer brands, partly for nationalistic reasons and also because the servers are cheaper. But in China, Lenovo has competition from companies like Inspur, Supermicro, and Tyan, which are growing quickly.

Lenovo has more resources and access to the latest technologies that the smaller Chinese vendors don't have. The company is experimenting with ARM servers, though it isn't ready to announce a product yet. It is also bringing GPUs and FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) into the server mix, Hortensius said.

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