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Rackable gets physical with the virtual

Real fake servers

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. ®

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