"Budgets are restricted and server infrastructure spending is clearly not the highest priority for many organizations," said Adrian O'Connell, research director at Gartner, in a statement.
Server unit shipments declined 0.7% compared to the first quarter last year, while revenue declined 5%. High-end servers, particularly those in the RISC/Itanium Unix category, suffered the biggest drop, with unit shipments off 38.8% and revenue down 35.8% from the same period last year. The two largest Unix server manufacturers, IBM and Oracle, were dragged down by the trend.
IBM's Unix server revenue was off 32.3% to $841 million on the quarter (down from $1.24 billion a year earlier). That contributed to a 13.6% slide in total server revenue for IBM to $3.01 billion from $3.49 billion in the first quarter last year. It also reduced IBM's server revenue market share to 25.5%, down from 28.0% last year, and ahead of HP, which had $2.95 billion in server revenue and 25.0% of the market in the first quarter.
[ Want more on Oracle's next-gen Unix servers? Read Oracle Sparc T5 Can't Make Sun Rise. ]
Oracle's Unix server shipments were down 60.4% to 7,459 units in the first quarter, reducing revenue in that category 38.3% to $280 million from $382 million a year earlier. The drop could be explained by anticipation of Oracle's late-first-quarter release of Sparc T5 and M5 servers, the replacements for earlier-generation T4 and M9000 servers. Oracle's total server revenue across all categories dropped 27.2% to $538 million, down from $739 million in the first quarter of 2012.
Shipments were flat for x86 servers at 2.29 million units, while revenue increased 1.8% to $9.11 billion from $8.95 billion in the first quarter of 2012. These servers are the backbone of distributed systems based on commodity hardware (such as Hadoop and NoSQL deployments) that are displacing high-end server sales. Indeed, the "self-build" category within this segment saw a 34.7% increase in unit shipments and a 35.4% increase in revenue to $434 million for the quarter.
Dell's focus on x86 servers helped it outperform competitors that rely on the RISC/Itanium sales. Dell shipments increased 2.6% to 516,355, up from 503,450 a year earlier. Revenue increased 14.4% to $2.12 billion, up from $1.85 billion in the first quarter of 2012.
Looking at results by region, conditions were weakest in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), where units were down 6.8% and revenue declined 9.6%. The Asia/Pacific region and the United States had shipment and revenue increases of 7% and 1.7%, respectively. The increases were not enough to offset declines in all other geographies.
"The reality for server vendors is that spending levels are very low and there is severe weakness in the high-end segment," O'Connell said. "The outlook for 2013 remains challenging."