Cheap Servers Get Data Center Creds

Serious technology - from places such as spaceships and nuclear plants - is coming to cheap servers

August 3, 2004

3 Min Read
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Low-end and midrange servers could become the building blocks of high-end data centers, thanks to some new R&D effort from the major vendors.

The big cheeses of servers -- including Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) -- all say they recognize that customers are starting to use the less expensive servers for higher-end applications. To this end, they're trying to pack more serious features onto the cheapest machines (see Get Set for Server Savings).

An example comes from Sun, which is improving its own low/mid-range servers next summer by updating the Solaris operating system with a feature called Continuous Systems Telemetry Harness [ed. note: sounds painful!]. Although something of a mouthful, the software is currently used to measure voltage, current, temperatures, and other metrics across Sun's higher-end servers.

The software, explains physicist Kenny Gross, of Sun's Physical Sciences Research Center, can warn administrators a few weeks before a server's system board fails.

Gross's team is already working on the next step, which is to scale the technology across many servers at once, using pattern recognition, to help administrators identify troublespots. "Humans can see the anomalies in the [voltage] signals very easily, but the human eyeball doesn't scale," he notes. Enough said.Gross says the next version of this software stems from the nuclear industry and the space shuttle, and is called multivariant state estimation technique (MSET). "We use this as an operator decision aid. We want the human to make the decision, but the human can't watch 1,000 signals, 24 hours a day."

The trend toward smaller-is-better is also being backed up by Intel. Included in today's announcement about the Intel "Nocona" processor -- a Xeon model with 64-bit extensions -- there are new features for mediating electrical current across the chip, called demand-based switching. The vendor estimates that this could save up to 30 percent in power consumption.

IBM, which today announced servers based on the new Intel processor, has introduced new features for maintenance and cooling control. The servers have eight memory slots that hold up to 16 GBytes, and they'll come equipped with cooling features such as liquid barriers between chips, according to IBM. The machines also offer directional heat removal pipes, and counter-rotating fans to create turbulence inside the server and cool them. The models include two-way rack servers called the xSeries 336 and 346; towers called the 226 and 236; the HSC20 BladeCenter; and the single-processor model 206 tower and 306 rack servers, all shipping in the next 30 days, officials say.

IBM also announced other new technology last week, called eFuse. The software uses "microscopic electrical fuses" to reroute a chip's logic configuration based on system performance. So far, that technology has been the domain of IBM servers running the high-end Power 5 processors, but by next year it could even appear in products like cell phones -- so low/mid-range servers shouldn't be far behind, officials said.

Meanwhile, Dell and HP also unveiled new servers today, each touting improvements based on Nocona. Dell's servers use a standard called the Intelligent Platform Management Interface 1.5 to remotely administer and boot, for diagnostic purposes, when used with Dell's new OpenManage 4.0 software, officials say. In about a year, Dell promises support for the next version of the standard, IPMI 2.0, which adds security features.— Evan Koblentz, Senior Editor, Next-Gen Data Center Forum

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