They may not have the recognizable brand of an IBM or Hewlett-Packard, but a cadre of second-tier vendors and system builders believe they can carve out a larger share of the market by developing innovative server designs that pack extra computing power into compact spaces.
The new server options include a 1U rack server that houses two full systems, 1U rack systems that can wedge in four add-in cards for specialized needs, and a "personal" cluster scaled down to a typical tower configuration.
These new models—aimed at the Web and high-performance computing markets—highlight a growing trend among system builders to couple power and cooling know-how with more efficient processors. These system builders are helping customers make the most out of their space in a data center while at the same time differentiating themselves from the typical rack servers and blades offered by top-tier vendors.
The Gemini series of servers from Open Source Systems, a San Jose, Calif.-based system builder, house two distinct two-socket systems in a 1U or 2U rack chassis. "Our competitors can't deliver two systems in 1U," said Eren Niazi, president of OSS. The company is using industry-standard parts for both models, and the units are cooled from front to back to comply with data center standards, he said.
Though customers focusing on server consolidation and some types of virtualization may lean toward larger four-socket systems, Niazi said some customers will find distinct benefits to OSS' two-system configuration. Among them are high-availability capabilities. Customers can run two mirrored servers simultaneously, and instead of having to maintain two servers in separate chassis, each coexists together in one unit.
Niazi said OSS also is recommending the systems to customers that want to run two different operating systems on one system. The Gemini systems will support any combination of Linux, Solaris and Windows.
OSS will ship both systems in September. The 2U model, in which the motherboards are stacked vertically, will ship first, followed by the 1U model in which the motherboards are placed front to back. OSS said the units support Xeon and Opteron processors and include 16 DIMM slots for up to 64 Gbytes of memory. In addition, the 2U version will support up to 12 hot-swappable drives.
Even Intel is getting into the act. The Santa Clara, Calif., company midyear rolled out the SE7230CA1-E, better known by code name Caretta. The 6-inch by 13-inch, single-socket server board accepts a Pentium 4, dual-core Pentium D or dual-core Pentium Extreme. Intel has plans to update that with more current processors—most likely versions of Intel's Core 2 Duo—at its fall developer conference in September.
In a recent interview with CRN, Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, said he was caught by surprise when Intel staffers first pitched the idea of the small server boards. "I sort of went, 'What? Why would the market be interested in this?' " he said.
But as Gelsinger soon learned, for some specific applications, customers now are starting to worry about things such as Ethernet bandwidth per node and memory per node. With Intel's new motherboards, customers can create one-node systems but slide two of them in a space originally reserved for one. "Essentially, these are half-size motherboards, so in the same rack space, you can put two," Gelsinger said. "The result is you can sort of mix and match the memory size as well as I/O bandwidth in the same rack density. It seems to be a pretty intriguing trend."
One system builder taking advantage of the motherboard is Ciara Technologies, Montreal. It developed the Nexxus 4000 Personal Cluster using the board. The Nexxus 4000 was developed through Ciara's VXTech division, which engineers new systems and also functions as a systems integrator.
The Nexxus 4000 houses four distinct systems in a tower chassis. It originally was developed using Intel's Caretta motherboard, but in July, Ciara also added dual-socket motherboards that use Intel's new Xeon Woodcrest processors. The design stacks two Caretta single-processor motherboards together on one blade, while the Xeon version holds two processors on one motherboard. The unit supports up to eight hard drives, integrates a UPS and plugs into a standard 110/220-volt AC outlet.
Patrick Scateni, vice president of VXTech, said the Nexxus 4000 offers the kind of number-crunching capabilities exclusive to high-performance computing research labs, which have larger budgets and can cluster hundreds of cheap computers together to harness compute power. "Smaller companies can afford this in terms of financial investment and space," he said.
For example, large financial institutions such as Merrill Lynch regularly run risk management simulations on powerful high-performance computing clusters, Scateni said. With the Nexxus 4000, smaller firms now have the same options. "These companies don't have huge data centers. We have high density but smaller constraints," he said. If necessary, the Nexxus 4000 can sit at the side of a desk.
Scateni said the single-socket Caretta motherboards are useful for some applications, which seem to scale up better with one CPU—for example, modeling and mechanical software.
A Nexxus 4000 configured with eight dual-core processors on the Caretta motherboards and 32 Gbytes of memory starts at about $10,000. The Xeon version, also with eight processors, starts at about $14,000.
VXTech sells its products direct to customers, but Scateni said Ciara is developing a channel program for the VAR community.
These are the kinds of systems that you won't see from the top-tier OEMs. Though all have been working on power and cooling—Sun Microsystems released an eight-socket server this year—they are shying away from the ultra high-density offerings.
In a recent interview, Pradeep Parmar, Sun's x64 product line business manager, said customers wanting high density are looking at Sun's four-socket blade offerings. Those blades fit into Sun's chassis that spans nearly one-half of a rack.
Meanwhile, Paul Miller, HP's vice president for industry standard servers and blade systems, said the company doesn't have plans to release ultra-high-density servers anytime soon. "We are looking at it," he said. "We have some models and are talking to customers. But it's not a sweet spot in the marketplace."
Restricted I/O capabilities in small form factors and other technology concerns limit the models' relevance among mainstream customers. "In five years, maybe we will have something," he said. "This year does it make sense? Absolutely not."
Still, research data from Gartner suggests high-density models from companies such as Rackable Systems are seeing traction among data center customers. Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst at Gartner, said in the second quarter, Rackable's server market share grew 79.2 percent in revenue and 76 percent in shipments from the year-earlier quarter.
Rackable, Milpitas, Calif., recently told CRN it is experiencing 100 percent growth year over year. Among its offerings are high-density, half-size servers that slip back to back into a rack.
The U.S. server market as a whole was up 5.5 percent in revenue and 15.9 percent in unit shipments in the same period, according to Gartner. Much of that growth is being driven by increased demand for Web servers and the continued proliferation of x86-based clusters, Hewitt said.
The Gartner data also highlights the development of smaller companies. Custom system builders and second-tier OEMs listed in the "other" category grew by 17.5 percent in revenue and 23.8 percent in shipments.
Another second-tier vendor riding this wave of growth is SuperMicro Computer, San Jose, Calif. It already offers half-size servers using low-voltage Intel processors. Last month it also released the 6500x series, a 1U server that can squeeze four PCI Express or PCI-X add-on cards, a IPMI management card and up to 32 Gbytes of memory into a 1U form factor.
In effect, said Tau Leng, director of marketing at SuperMicro, the new server condenses the features of a 2U server down to the space of a 1U server.
System builder and distributor AMAX, Fremont, Calif., also is working on small servers. AMAX is developing 1U servers that are 16 inches to 17 inches deep. Both servers will support Opteron or Xeon Woodcrest CPUs. They are aimed at customers that have limited space and server appliances, such as Web servers and mail servers. AMAX still is finalizing the thermal configuration and will release the servers to the market in the next month or so, said James Huang, AMAX's marketing specialist.
AMAX, like many other system builders, is finding it can do more with less when it comes to differentiating its servers from the top-tier fare.