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Fabric7 bets on Opteron smackdown with Unix giants

I/O, I/O, it's off to work we go

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Analysis Fabric7 has arrived on the server scene as something of a rarity. It's a start-up with a pitch that actually makes a lot of sense. Linux on x86 chips has eaten away at the low-end sales enjoyed by Unix server makers. So with x86 gaining performance, and Linux software gaining maturity, why not go after the higher-end systems?

Most start-ups come to us with fanciful pitches and seem destined to have short runs. If they're lucky, a larger vendor will acquire their goods to fill a small gap in their product lineup. Blade server maker RLX and intelligent switch firm Topspin fit this mold well, being picked up recently by HP and Cisco, respectively. The idea is to be just far ahead enough of the big boys so that it's easier for them to buy you than develop their own hardware or software.

Fabric7, however, has a play that the Tier 1 vendors have already tried and then largely abandoned. It's going after Unix SMPs with a fast, networking-rich system that can run business software which has been ported to Linux, along with Windows server software.

The flagship Fabric7 box is the Q160 server. The system can be configured with anywhere between 2 and 14 Opteron processors from AMD. You might be shocked to find out that the system takes up half a standard rack, but there's a reason for the size.

The Q160 is packed full of networking technology. It boasts 128 Gbps of non-blocking, switched I/O that permits up to 40 Gbps of bandwidth to processors and memory. Customers can link the systems together at speeds of up to 30 Gbps.

"Everything about the product just screams, 'We are going to eat up I/Os,'" said Jonathan Eunice, lead analyst at Illuminata. "The idea of providing that big switch in the back-end means that it should have a boatload of I/O performance. There is constant attention here to quality of service, and the systems should handle any data-heavy applications that need a big memory footprint or tons of bandwidth."

Just before Opteron and 64-bit Xeon arrived, the Tier I server makers largely pulled out of the x86 SMP game. HP waved goodbye to its 8-way systems, and Dell abandoned its 8-way server before it reached the market. IBM alone continues to invest large amounts of money into high-performing chipsets for its Xeon-based gear and can scale its Xseries systems up to handle databases and other demanding business software. More minor companies such as Unisys and a couple of Asian suppliers also offer large Xeon-based gear.

The big boys' aversion to x86 SMPs continued even as 64-bit x86 chips appeared. The right processors had arrived for the job, but attention moved elsewhere as the Tier Is decided to maintain their Unix server lines and focus on selling x86 clusters and blades.

Fabric7 hopes it has caught the market at just the right spot. It's offering a product that differs from the SMP kit sold by Unisys and IBM and wants to revitalize the 64-bit Linux and Windows businesses.

"Two years or even a year ago, I would say Linux was still a bit immature for this play," Eunice said. "But the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels are really quite good at handling bigger resource pools. They are not AIX, HP-UX or Solaris. I totally grant that. Still, I think the applications are there for Linux and even Windows Server 2003 to take advantage of this. I think it's actually the right time."

The Fabric7 systems offer a lot of the tools founds on Unix SMPs. Each system can be carved up into different sized partitions - the smallest being a two-socket slice. (That's a four-way partition with dual-core Opterons.) Customers can then control the amount of bandwidth, memory and storage dedicated to each partition in some sophisticated ways. The switching infrastructure provided by Fabric7 gives you far more I/O control options than typical systems, meaning you can set up unique quality of service levels for each applications.

Fabric7 has a clean looking GUI and a command line interface for management and touts its software as a big asset, but then what start-up doesn't?

If you need raw horsepower to go along with the I/O-heavy Q160, Fabric7 sells the more traditional Q80 server. This box takes up just 6U of rack space and still has 8-sockets. It can also be carved up like the Q160 and touts 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports and 8 PCI-X slots. It supports up to 64GB of memory, while the larger box support up to 128GB.

We already covered some of the brains behind Fabric7 here. There's a lot of old Tandem and Sequent talent on board with, of course, the requisite Sun Microsystems hands that seem to feature in every hardware start-up.

Speaking of Sun, Fabric7 looks to face new competition from the House that McNealy Built when the 8-socket Galaxy box finally arrives. From a pure horsepower standpoint, Sun should match the start-up. HP too could reenter the 8-way market any day now that it has seen solid sales of its Opteron gear.

Fabric7 though will keep touting its networking edge over these larger players. Most networking start-ups brag about all their ports and I/Os but forget the processing part of the equation, while server start-ups tend to scream about their processing power while forgetting about I/O. Fabric7 thinks it has found a solid middle-of-the-road approach.

"We think we are hitting this at the perfect moment in time," said Sharad Mehrotra CEO of Fabric7 in an interview. "If you're already looking at Linux, every major ISV is already there. They've moved en masse. What is missing is the iron to run those workloads."

In recent years, some of the more practical server start-up ideas have played out. Egenera, for example, still competes well in the blade server market and briefly considered an IPO based on its success. Rackable Systems has enjoyed a solid IPO and made a name for itself as a thin server specialist.

Fabric7 looks to follow this trend and capitalize on the interest in AMD's Opteron chip.

Readers interested in the Fabric7 gear can find more information here. The Q160 has started shipping at a list price of $144,000. The Q80 will ship in the first quarter of 2006 at a list price of $42,000. ®

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