IT Wary of Trade-Offs in Ultradense Servers

A new crop of ultrathin servers on tap from a handful of computer makers may not be all they're cracked up to be

A new crop of ultrathin servers on tap from a handful of computer makers may not be all theyre cracked up to be.

According to IT professionals and industry analysts, manufacturers of such servers, dubbed "ultradense" servers, may have cut too many corners in designing the compact systems, making them ill-suited for the very businesses theyre targeted at: data centers and Internet service providers.

Many data centers deploy the thinnest rack-server available, a 1.75-inch-thick, pizza-box-shaped form factor known as a 1U. Thats because thin servers cost less (averaging $2,000 to $5,000); can be easily added to meet growing needs; and can be stacked 42 units high in industry-standard, 7-foot racks, freeing up floor space.

But there are trade-offs with ultradense servers. In particular, several new rack-mounted servers, such as ones coming from Intel Corp.s Ziatech Corp. subsidiary and startup RLX Technologies Inc., lack such things as ECC (error-correcting code), a standard feature on most servers.

They are also powered by processors and chip sets previously reserved for use in laptop PCs. For instance, RLXs Razor servers will use Transmeta Corp.s low-power Crusoe processor, currently featured in ultralight notebooks.

Low-voltage, cooler-running mobile chips help prevent the compact servers from overheating and also ease the energy demands of running racks filled with more than 100 processors.

But such mobile components are unproven in the server environment, where stability and always-on capability is a must. In addition, accompanying mobile hard drives that will also be used fall well short of generally accepted server standards.

"Those are some of the trade-offs that people make as they consider ultradense," said Mike Fister, general manager of Intels enterprise platforms group, speaking at the companys Developer Forum in San Jose, Calif., this month. At the forum, Fister demonstrated a 2U server that holds eight blades.

Among the major OEMs known to be planning to release ultradense servers are Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and IBM. In addition, several startups will compete for a share of the market, including FiberCycle Networks Inc. and Inc.

Wayne Rosing, vice president of engineering for Google Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., said several manufacturers have recently pitched him on ultradense servers. "Were obviously the type of company theyre targeting," said Rosing, who oversees about 8,000 servers that power Googles popular Web search engine site.

While vendors say such devices are ideally suited as Web servers, he said computer makers may have sacrificed too much to produce the smaller servers. "The important thing people have to remember is that these systems are mission-critical," he said.

Rosing, noting that all of Googles servers feature ECC, said businesses should not rush to adopt the new designs. "Our position is that this is first-generation technology, and we are going to take a wait-and-see approach to determine its overall cost/performance benefits," he said.

Another IT manager admitted that while a more compact server is attractive, a substandard platform is not. "I think it will come to the point where people will say, If you want us to put this in our enterprise, you better make it enterprise-class," said Joel Salamone, MIS director for The Motley Fools Web site,, in Alexandria, Va.