Compaq Sets Pace

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-22 Print this article Print

Compaq Sets Pace

Vendors and analysts said Sun is the manufacturer to catch in the high-end market, while Compaq is setting the pace on thin servers.

Compaqs ProLiant DL360 was a recognized hit in June because it incorporated two Pentium processors in an attractive 1u package. Compaq officials said they sold 24,000 units in the first quarter following the products introduction, but they wouldnt comment on more recent sales.

ASP NetLedger, which purchases Linux-based thin servers from VA Linux, said Compaq hit the nail on the head. "IBM was first to market, but Compaq has produced the perfect box for Internet service providers," said David Durkee, chief information officer at NetLedger.

Compaq spokesmen said its no accident they came up with the right mix of performance and manageability in the ProLiant DL360, DL380 and DL580 models. With ISPs sliding hundreds of thin servers at a time into racks, Compaqs discussions with users showed manageability was as much an issue as processing power.

As the racks of thin servers build up at a service provider, technicians have to push a cart down an aisle carrying a monitor, keyboard and mouse to install a new server or reboot an existing one. A common error, said Compaqs server marketing manager, Paul Miller, is for a technician working on the front of a thin server to go around to the back side and unplug the wrong cable in a 42-unit stack. For that reason, Miller said, Compaq offers connections for keyboard, monitor and mouse on both front and back, as well as a blue LED that can be lit remotely to indicate which server is being worked on.

Unlike other thin server vendors, Compaq has built a disk array controller into its server motherboard, sparing the customer from using one of two precious PCI card slots in the server for that function. The disk array controller lets one small computer system interconnect (SCSI, pronounced SKUZ-ee) drive back up another. This redundancy can prevent a shutdown in case of a single drive failure.

SCSI drives in a Compaq thin server are also hot-swappable. A failed drive can be unplugged and a new one inserted without taking the server down, a key feature for Web sites that have to remain in continuous operation, Miller said. Dell matched the feature in its 1550, Dell spokesmen said.

In addition, Compaq is offering — as a $500 option — a lights-out management board that plugs into a PCI slot in its server. With the board installed, a system administrator can link to the server and audit its operations from anywhere, including a wireless device, as if he were standing in front of it with keyboard, monitor and mouse attached, Miller said. The board includes its own battery emergency power. If the server stops running, a system administrator "can still look at what happened before the server went completely dead," he said.

In February, Dell came out with its two-processor, PowerEdge 2450, a 2u rack-mount server, about 3.5 inches high. On Dec. 5, it announced the 1550, which offers similar processing power in a 1u configuration. The 1550 features two Pentium III 933-megahertz or 1-gigahertz processors, three low-profile SCSI hard drives and 4 gigabytes of RAM at a price of $2,599.

"That price is likely to send a cold spell through Houston," said Kevin Libert, director of marketing at Dells Enterprise Systems Group, in reference to rival Compaqs headquarters.

The pricing undercuts all of Dells major competitors, including Compaq, IBM and Sun. The price for the Compaq ProLiant DL 360 ranges from $4,009 for a system with dual 550-MHz Pentium III processors to $5,035 for a system with dual 933-MHz Pentium III processors. There is as yet no 1-GHz model. Sun sells its Netra t1 Model 100 with a 360-MHz UltraSparc II processor for $4,995.

But aggressive pricing is necessary because Dell is in fact just catching up with the technology of the widely acknowledged market leaders — Compaq and IBM — each of which engineered powerful two-processor servers into a 1u box six months before Dell managed the feat.

IBM was actually early to market with one- and two-processor models of the Netfinity 4000R in September 1999. The two-processor version was a 2u box. Netfinity has now been renamed the X Series.

Dell, IBM and Sun offer their own remote management features, but they tend to omit one or more of Compaqs combined set. Dell, for example, offers the OpenManage Server Assistant 6.0 to help customers set up their servers in about 20 minutes. Its OpenManage IT Assistant monitors processor status, internal temperatures and fans, and alerts a system administrator to problems. OpenManage tools can be used from remote locations on the network through a Web interface, according to Dells Libert.

But in the event of system failure, the remote administrator cant peer into the Dell server for an explanation of what happened the way the Compaqs lights-out management board does, Compaqs Miller said.

The difference, said Pauline Nist, vice president at the Tandem business unit, is Compaqs research and development engineers experience in the server field. They now include experienced designers from Tandem and Digital Equipment Corp. who are pushing manageability features down from its Tandem and Digital Alpha servers into the Compaq thin server lineup.

Tandems high-speed server interconnect, which allowed an instantaneous transfer of operations from one server to another, is now being pushed into Compaqs ProLiant server clusters and thin-server racks, Nist said. A more basic example, she said, was how the forest of thin-server cables, often five per server in a 42-server rack, is adroitly directed by Compaqs cable pulleys and holders, which bundle each servers set out the back end of the unit.

IBM and Dell representatives said their thin-server designs practice cable management as well.


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