Ultradense Servers Make Mark, Set Standards

Systems managers for web hosting companies are looking forward to a new breed of high-density servers they hope will enable them to boost computing power without utilizing more space and power.

Systems managers for web hosting companies are looking forward to a new breed of high-density servers they hope will enable them to boost computing power without utilizing more space and power.

The key benefit of so-called ultradense hardware is the ability to increase the server capacity of existing rack space while reducing power consumption, wiring and cooling problems–attractive features to growing Web hosting companies.

Nevertheless, most hosting companies are tempering their enthusiasm. Theyve got to decide whether to invest in unproven technology and–if they do–whether to buy from the startup companies that are the first to bring these servers to market or from industry veterans.

Newcomer RLX Technologies Inc. last week became an early leader in the field, releasing a high-density system–the RLX System 24–that can pack up to 336 servers in an industry-standard rack currently designed to house 42 1U servers. 1U defines a rack-mounted server that is 1.75 inches thick.

However, the server industrys leading manufacturers will soon join the fray. Compaq Computer Corp., the worlds second-largest server vendor, last week detailed plans for its upcoming ultradense server, called QuickBlade, which will ship later this year. Hewlett-Packard Co., of Palo Alto, Calif., also plans to release a high-density system by the end of the year.

Slimmer servers are "something weve been looking for ... a long time," said Stacey Son, vice president of hosting services for Verio Inc., of Englewood, Colo., an operator of Web sites for businesses. "It addresses a lot of problems facing data centers today."

"Weve been looking at possibly building them ourselves because space is at a premium," said Phil Senff, director of Internet services for iBiz Technology Corp., in Phoenix. "It sure would be nice to be able to double, triple or quadruple our servers without building more space."

A study this month by Band-X Ltd., in London, found that higher real estate costs and other factors have driven the cost of co-location rack space to about $1,000 a rack per month worldwide. That is a 30 percent increase since Band-X began monitoring prices in December 1999.

While computer makers have been working on ultradense designs for more than a year, the new technology garnered public attention early this year when RLX, of Woodlands, Texas, announced plans to introduce its first system. RLXs management team includes CEO Gary Stimac, one of the founders of Compaq, and several other ex-Compaq executives.

Although the first high-density servers are being designed to handle simple tasks such as storing Web pages for Internet service providers, analysts expect the systems will evolve into more robust computing systems.

"I dont think its going to be appliance play only," said John Humphreys, an analyst with International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "I think the real opportunity is to offer a broader, more general-purpose server blade."

RLXs Stimac agreed. "Our initial products are optimized for the Web server application," he said. "However, over time, as we move all elements of the architecture forward, well be able to address heavier-duty applications."

Despite RLXs executive team and an agreement under which IBM will sell RLXs products, RLXs server is still viewed with skepticism. A key concern is the companys decision to use low-power Crusoe processors from Transmeta Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif., to power its servers.

Son, who works in Verios data center in Austin, Texas, said hes wary of using Transmeta processors, which have never been used in servers and were originally designed to power handheld devices and notebooks.

Although processors from Intel Corp. now dominate the Web server market, several server makers have chosen Transmeta chips for their high-density servers, including FiberCycle Networks Inc. and Rebel.com, formerly Hardware Canada Computing Inc. However, Houston-based Compaq will integrate a new Intel mobile chip, code-named Tualatin, into its QuickBlade server. Crusoe chips run cooler, but Intel contends its newest products consume less power.

Another concern that system managers have expressed about some high-density designs–including RLXs–is a lack of ECC (error-correcting code), a feature found on most servers. Compaq officials said their design will include ECC.

"I think [not having ECC] may be cutting it to too fine an edge," said Wayne Rosing, who oversees about 8,000 servers as vice president of engineering for search service Google Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif.

But Verios Son said ECC posed less of an issue for companies like his. "When youre doing highly distributed systems, as we are, reliability becomes less of a problem because you have redundant systems," he said.

While hardware components are vital, IDCs Humphreys said software will prove key. "I think well see a lot of competition in the server blade market," he said. "The differentiator wont so much be the hardware ... it will be the management software they develop and package with those servers."