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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.

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