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Whither Google?

DCS doesn't mention a lot of its customers by name, but Facebook and Salesforce.com buy custom servers and data center services from the Dell unit. Incidentally, Google does not, and not for want of trying on the part of Dell. And Norrod is a bit frustrated by that. "Google is a very innovative company in many ways, but we are all slaves to our history and inertia," he says. "Google has evolved its bread rack servers in a garage, but it is as far as they can go with it, I think." Google is, of course, super-secretive about its server infrastructure, but has built its own iron.

Here's how DCS makes money. A large (and unnamed) search engine company engaged the DCS team because it needed to add servers to its infrastructure faster than its data centers could allow, even after it was plunking down new data centers. Using its own designs, the search engine company could cram about 12,000 servers into one of its data centers. Dell engineers came into the data center and reconfigured the air conditioning units, raised the water temperature on the CRAC units, and moved around the server gear to improve air flow.

Then Dell took a variety of half-width motherboards from Super Micro as well as some created on a custom basis to create a 2U rack server that held four physical two-socket servers. (You can double up in 1U servers, but 40mm fans are louder and less efficient than 80mm fans, so a 2U chassis makes more sense). Dell was able with this design to get the per-server cooling down to 5 watts of electricity, compared to around 30 watts per server with its best PowerEdge general-purpose designs. And when all was said and done, Dell was able to cram 30,000 server nodes into the same room.

The hand-tailored solution is not just hand holding, either. According to Norrod, the differences in the ways that search engine companies implement their code to distribute data and queries across their machines will drive the architectural choices Dell helps these companies make. Different search engines get slightly different, but still custom, boxes. And some customers want different support options, too. Some DCS buyers prefer to have Dell employees on site to deal with break/fix issues (and with tens of thousands of servers, something is always dying), while others just want to have spare parts and still others only want dead boxes replaced.

Norrod says that having figured out how to do custom servers and data center designs for these hyperscale companies, Dell is now looking to expand out into custom storage and other IT gear. This includes an ecosystem of partners, some of whom are interested in building public, private, or semi-private compute or storage utilities. Dell is projecting, in fact, that 35 per cent of x64 server sales could be driven by high performance computing, service providers, and these hyperscale distributed computing deployments within the next three years. (All of these types of deployments have some resemblance in terms of scale and technology.)

But Dell also knows that the DCS unit has some inherent limits. Norrod expects to have 50 customers by the end of this year, and maybe 100 by next year, but says this hand-crafted approach does not scale to IT in general. However, everything Dell learns certainly can be applied in some fashion to midrange and enterprise computing, and custom servers built today lay the foundation for future products. ®

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