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Rackable gets physical with the virtual

Real fake servers

By Timothy Prickett Morgan, 22 Jan 2009

The economy has been hard on boutique server maker Rackable Systems, but the company keeps tweaking its designs in the hope that a broad portfolio of servers and storage will win a little more business in hyperscale data centers.

Today, Rackable launched a new line of products that do what many of us in the server space have been advocating for years: Using Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX motherboards, they provide the sort of modest computing oomph perfectly suited to workloads like Web serving, print and file serving, and running search engine algorithms.

The MicroSlice servers take what people are doing with virtualization software - carving up a machine into smaller slices to drive up the overall use and efficiency of a standard two-socket or four-socket server - and they do it at the physical level, using smaller and cheaper systems sitting side-by-side in the server chassis or on a cookie sheet tray inside a rack.

With tongue somewhat in cheek, Saeed Atashie, director of server products at Rackable, calls this "physicalization" in an attempt to contrast this approach with the server virtualization that most server makers, including Rackable, have been touting.

Rackable is not against virtualizing big, fat server nodes. It is happy to do it. The company just thinks that the economics of Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX systems are compelling enough that in a down economy, a rack of tiny servers might make more sense and be cheaper to acquire and operate than virtualized machines.

"This idea has been around, and a lot of people have been kicking it around," says Atashie. "We are taking a hardware-centric approach with MicroSlice, using smaller nodes and going for cost optimization. This is really about cost effective scaling, with the cost per node dropping by up to 80 per cent and also giving a dramatic improvement in performance per watt - up to 51 per cent."

The MicroSlice servers allow up to 264 server nodes (using Mini-ITX boards, which measure 6.7 by 6.7 inches) in a single rack based on the CloudRack cookie-sheet servers that Rackable announced back in October 2008. Half as many server nodes can fit into the rack using Micro-ATX boards, which measure 9.6- by 9-inches and have more memory and I/O expansion than the Mini-ITX boards.

Both kinds of boards were originally designed for PCs and, in the case of Mini-ITX boards, various embedded devices. The company also offers smaller Nano-ITX boards (4.7 by 4.7 inches) and Pico-ITX boards (3.9 by 2.8 inches) using low-powered chips aimed at desktops and laptops or even lower-powered X64 processors used by enthusiasts before they ended up in netbooks. Atashie says that Rackable has not packed Nano-ITX or Pico-ITX boards into its CloudRack machines, but clearly it can.

Rackable's MicroSlice setup puts six Mini-ITX boards on the back right side of the CloudRack tray. Then, down the left side of the tray, a Roamer remote management server and an eight-port Ethernet switch links the server nodes to each other and to the network. The front of the tray has six 2.5-inch SATA disks, each one linking to a single Mini-ITX board.

The tray has the minimal amount of metal possible - no cover or back - and a 450-watt power supply rated at 92.5 per cent efficiency to power all the machines. The CloudRack, you will remember, does not have fans on the trays, but rather two big fans in the 22U half-rack or four big fans in a 44U enclosure that cools all the trays together. A big fan moves air more efficiently (and with less noise) than a bunch of tiny fans.

Sliced and diced

Rackable's Mini-ITX board uses Advanced Micro Devices' dual-core Athlon X2 processor and its N690E/SB600 chipset. The board has two memory slots and supports up to 4 GB of DDR2 main memory. This is the TR100-AT1 server in the Rackable catalog. The Micro-ATX board, given the product number TR1000-ATP1, is based on the AM2+ socket and AMD's 780V/SB700 chipset. It supports dual-core Athlon X2 chips today and will soon support tricore Phenom X3 and quad-core Phenom X4 chips. That Micro-ATX board has four memory slots and supports up to 8 GB of DDR2 main memory.

In addition to putting Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX boards into its CloudRacks, Rackable has also announced two half-depth rack-based servers that put a single Mini-ITX server (the same board as used in the CloudRack cookie sheet machines) into a 1U rack chassis. The C1002-AT1 points the Mini-ITX ports out the front end of the chassis and has four 2.5-inch or two 3.5-inch removable disks - hot swap is not a technology concept that Mini-ITX boards understand yet - while the C1000-AT1 has a single 3.5-inch drive inside the box.

While Rackable is peddling AMD processors and chipsets today, the company expects to put out MicroScale setups using Intel processors sometime this quarter. Rackable doesn't talk prices, but it says that it can get it down to under $500 per server node in relatively large configurations.

It may seem counterintuitive to use laptop or other processors inside servers, but the numbers are compelling. You might be thinking, "Why not just use low-voltage parts in standard motherboards to get a performance/watt boost?" But you can't get the cost of that two-socket motherboard down low enough to compete against four times as many Mini-ITX machines.

To make an apples-to-applesauce comparison, Rackable set up two of its machines: an Intel "Bensley" platform with two Xeon L5420 quad-core processors, one disk, and 32 GB of memory, and a follow-on "San Clemente" system with the same low-voltage processors plus a disk and 24 GB of memory. These two machines were compared to four of the Mini-ITX boards, each with an Athlon 4850E processor, 4 GB of memory, and a single disk.

Running Web serving benchmarks on Apache (presumably supported by Linux), the two Intel boxes fielded just under 8,000 Web requests per second. The four Mini-ITX boards could handle just under 12,000, resulting in a 54 per cent performance advantage.

But here's the kicker. If you normalize the cost of the boards against the Bensley box, the single San Clemente server was about 12 per cent cheaper, but the four Mini-ITX servers were 24 per cent cheaper. That works out to a 51 per cent improvement in price/performance for the Mini-ITX machines versus the Bensley box, and a 31 per cent reduction in watts burned to process a Web hit. A configured Mini-ITX server burns about 72 watts running real workloads, according to Rackable.

Rackable has certified Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 as well as commercial Linuxes from Red Hat and Novell on these new machines. They are available immediately.

The company is clearly hoping to stir up some business with these as well as the CloudRack configurations announced in the fall. Just last week, Rackable warned Wall Street fourth quarter sales would plummet would plummet, coming in at between $36m and $41m, a shocking drop from the $111.6m it had in the fourth quarter of 2007. IBM, Dell, and HP as well as boutique competitor Verari Systems have all been chasing the hyperscale money. But none of them have commercial Mini-ITX and Micro-ATX blade or tray servers - at least not yet. Give it a week or two. ®