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January 29, 2009

Recession Takes a Bite Out of Supercomputing

Michael Feldman

Well, the boom times for high performance computing couldn’t last forever. The global recession has reached all the way into the HPC market. According to new reports released this month from analyst firms IDC and Tabor Research, HPC server revenue contracted in 2008, and 2009 doesn’t look any better.

In this week’s issue we get the scoop from the two premier HPC analyst groups: IDC and Tabor Research. Earl Joseph, IDC’s program VP for HPC, discusses their revised HPC server numbers and how it’s effecting their five-year forecast. Addison Snell, GM for Tabor Research, talks about their new outlook and the market drivers behind it.

Despite rosier forecasts just a few months ago, the new data suggest 2008 suffered server revenue declines in the sector. IDC estimates HPC server sales were $9.6 billion in 2008, representing a reduction of 4.2 percent compared to 2007 revenue. Tabor Research’s number for 2008 is $7.83 billion, which is down a more modest 0.8 percent from its prior year figure.

At this point IDC is forecasting negative server growth for 2009 as well. Beyond that it sees modest growth in 2010, returning to its “normal” 9 percent-plus growth trajectory by 2011. Those three lost years mean IDC’s five-year forecast has been scaled back significantly. Just four months ago, the analyst group was predicting the HPC server market to hit $15.6 billion in 2012. Because of the economic slowdown, that number has been pared to $11.7 billion.

Tabor Research’s Snell points out that servers are actually the weakest segment of HPC spending, since software, storage, network equipment and facilities costs represent a much larger slice of the overall budget. He says “only about a third of an HPC user’s budget goes to servers, and this percentage is falling.” That’s actually a good thing. The closer you get to selling just commodities (like x86 servers), the more susceptible you become to boom-bust cycles.

So will some HPC vendors be able to dodge the recession? The latest quarterly results from interconnect vendor Mellanox Technologies suggest some HPC companies may be better positioned to ride out the bad economy. Its Q4 results were nothing to write home about, but as a whole, the company grew its revenue by 28 percent in 2008 and is seeing a rapid uptake of its new 40 Gbps InfiniBand products.

But HPC overall is dipping. There’s fairly general consensus that the recession is causing users of all stripes to become more conservative with new IT spending, lengthening procurement cycles. IDC’s Joseph notes that the automotive and financial services sectors are particularly stressed right now, to the point that even mission-critical capital expenditures are being slashed. Snell points out that university endowment funds are suffering right now, which is likely to negatively impact HPC spending.

Public spending, at least at the federal level, is likely to help buoy the market as governments try to pump life into the economy. Both IDC and Tabor point to the Obama administration’s plans to increase science and infrastructure funding as a possible source of new HPC revenue. The stimulus bill that will get this party started is still making its way through Congress, but it’s almost assured that we’ll see some big chunk of public money headed for R&D and technology-related spending over the next two years.

At this point, it’s a real struggle for analysts to forecast too far into the future. For now, HPC is at the mercy of an economy that is careening from crisis to crisis and volatility is the only constant. IDC says it intends to update its numbers on a quarterly basis to keep its pulse on industry. And I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from Tabor Research as it collects new data in the months ahead.

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