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Dell plays with virtual data centers

Punts shiny new server racks too

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In a normal time - say, like last year before the economic meltdown - server maker Dell would have probably just shelled out a bunch of cash and acquired Future Facilities, a maker of 3D data center simulation and design tools. But this is not a normal time, and cash is king. So, today, Dell is instead announcing a partnership with the company that will see Dell use its 6Sigma DC virtual data center modeling tools in its efforts to peddle products and services.

These days, IT shops are not just looking to replace servers and storage to support more workloads or just make existing ones go faster. They want help reducing costs on the IT infrastructure as well as the means of improving efficiencies and reducing costs in the facilities that wrap around that infrastructure.

Albert Esser, vice president of power and infrastructure solutions at Dell's Product Group (that means green IT guru, essentially), says that the company does not have the luxury of doing data center engagements with "armies of consultants," as IBM and HP can certainly do. It will instead rely on tools to assess current data centers and then model changes to them to see the effect of new gear, new cooling gadgetry, and other technologies inside the data center before the customer commits to the plan.

Esser say that Dell's techies have been playing around with the 6Sigma DC tools for the past year and a half, not only in selected customer engagements, but also to drive development of servers, storage, and racks that wrap around them. Like customers, Dell wanted to see the practical effect of its designs before it committed to rolling out energy-efficient servers (for which it is charging a premium) or the new PowerEdge 2420 and 4220 server racks announced today.

The 6Sigma DC tool generates a model of a data center called the Virtual Facility. This model is built using a database of components - servers, storage arrays, racks, networking gear, racks, power distribution units, air conditioning units, floor tiles - that engineers can drop and drag into the virtualized representation of the actual data center. This database has all the relevant information about the components - in the case of computing equipment, how big and heavy the gear is, what power it consumes, what heat it blows off, and how the heat flows out of the device and how cooling air is sucked in.

When you add up all of the components, the tool can basically simulate the weather inside of the data center and then allow engineers to play "what-if" games as gear is moved around or changed. The 6Sigma DC tool can optimize at the rack level and then optimize at the room level. And it can support all manner of IT gear, not just Dell iron.

Dell is using the 6Sigma DC tool as part of its data center optimization services engagements. This includes an assessment of the current IT infrastructure and its related power and cooling facilities in the data center, a three- to twelve-week engineering engagement to optimize an existing facility or design a new one and consolidation services to help customers implement virtualization or otherwise consolidate machinery.

Tim Webb, director of Dell's infrastructure consulting practice, says the main idea is to keep companies from overprovisioning any resources. The typical data center assessment, say for a 5,000 to 15,000 square foot data center, runs between $40,000 to $50,000, which is the price of about a dozen heavily configured servers these days. For smaller data centers, an assessment runs about $10,000 and for hyperscale facilities it is obviously a much longer engagement that costs more.

"Using these tools, we will find many, many times this assessment investment and get payback for customers very quickly," says Webb.

While not particularly sexy, the design of server racks still matters. Dell's new PowerEdge 2420 and 4220 racks come in 24U and 42U heights and have been beefed up to hold more weight. The 2420 rack can hold 1,500 pounds, up from 1,200, while the 4220 can hold 2,500 pounds instead of 1,500. The new racks also have integrated rear and side power distribution units, which means PDUs do not take up rack space any more. The racks are also 4.8 inches deeper, which allows more air space for hot air to get away from the servers and storage in the back of the racks and sucked away.

The front and rear security doors now have 80 per cent perforation to let more cool air in the front and more hot air out the back. The typical rack security door has maybe 60 per cent perforation, according to Esser, with the best racks topping out at 70 per cent. The racks also sport what are call air-dams, which keep hot air from leaking back into the front of the rack and being sucked into what should be a cold air intake.

The PowerEdge 2420 rack costs $1,100, while the PowerEdge 4220 costs $1,416. Both come with a one-year service contract. Both are available now. ®

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