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Dell mainstreams cloud servers

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For the past several years, server and PC maker Dell has built a sizeable and mostly hidden business selling custom-made servers to elite data center customers facing power, cooling, and compute capacity issues that its regular SMB and enterprise customers don't have to cope with. But as hyperscale computing - database clustering and analytics, big data-crunching using Hadoop and MapReduce, and more traditional technical supercomputing - goes more mainstream, Dell needs to commercialize its cloud server business. Every customer can't get bespoke servers and allow Dell to make a profit.

And so today Dell will be commercializing three models of servers developed by its Data Center Solutions (DCS) business, selling them under the PowerEdge C brand name.

Dell isn't just hoping there is demand for streamlined, stripped-down, super-efficient, and somewhat more costly rack servers. The DCS unit, which El Reg told you about here, would be ranked as the number three server-shipper in the United States - behind HP and parent Dell and ahead of IBM - if the unit were broken out as a separate company.

That's on the order of a few hundred thousand servers per quarter or so; Dell was not precise. But it is a lot of machines, and according to Valerie Knafo, senior manager of business development for the DCS unit, and Dell can use all the savings in power, cooling, and floor space customers gain and charge a tidy premium for the boxes despite the large volumes and the legendary stinginess of hyperscale and HPC shops.

"Our focus is that these are cheaper to own, not cheaper to buy," explains Knafo. "And yes, this is a profitable business for us."

Dell is floating three different PowerEdge cloud boxes today, which represent a mere taste of the boxes that DCS customers have helped Dell develop based on their own requirements. All three are rack-mounted machines based on Intel's current generations of quad-core Xeon 5500 and six-core Xeon 5600 processors, the latter being announced a week ago.

Given the performance and performance-per-watt advantages of the 5600s over the 5500s, it is hard to imagine anyone wants the older chips. All of the PowerEdge C boxes sport power supplies that run at 92 per cent efficiency. These are more costly, but pay for themselves in fairly short order through power and cooling savings.

Thanks to tweaks in the memory controllers of the Xeon 5600s, the cloud boxes can also make use of low-voltage DDR3 main memory, which can shave about 10 per cent off the memory power budget, according to Intel. Because of the way hyperscale customers manage their servers (or rather, don't manage them because they do not need to treat servers like a scarce resource that cannot crash because they are generally used in clusters with some kind of disaster tolerance built in), the iDRAC service processors that are part of standard PowerEdge machines are ripped out of the cloud boxes (reducing cost and thereby helping to pay for the other premium parts) and replaced with a simpler baseboard management controller (BMC) that supports IMPI 2.0 management interfaces.

The C1100 and C2100 rack servers are two-socket machines that come in a 1U and 2U form factor, respectively. Nothing special there. The two machines use the same Dell-designed motherboard, and this is where the engineering comes in and creates a box that has different properties from standard 1U and 2U PowerEdge servers.

Dell says that in a 1U server, you typically have to make some sort of sacrifice to cram lots of memory and disks and peripheral slots into the machine, but the C1100 supports the full nine DDR3 memory slots per socket offered by both the Xeon 5500 and 5600 processors, for a full 18 slots and a maximum of 144 GB of memory. The 1U chassis can also support four 3.5-inch drives across the front or ten 2.5-inch drives while also providing that full memory capacity, and still have room for a real PCI-Express 2.0 x16 slot.

The motherboard has two mezzanine adapters for hooking up SAS or 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and three other PCI-Express slots. It also has two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the mobo and one 100 Megabit port as a dedicated management port. This port is useful for linking into the integrated iKVM switch on the systems, which provides remote access over the Internet to keyboard, video, and mouse ports. (All cloud boxes have this iKVM capability, which normal PowerEdge boxes do not.) The C1100 can be equipped with one or two 650 watt power supplies.

The C2100 takes the same board and slaps it into a 2U chassis that has room for a dozen 3.5-inch SATA or SAS drives (for 24TB of local storage using SATA and 7.2TB using SAS) plus two internal bays for 2.5-inch drives suitable for more disks or, more likely, two 50GB SSD flash drives to boost system performance. The C2100 comes with one or two 650 watt power supplies, which begs the question why the C1100 doesn't have a lower-wattage power supply option. Presumably, the fully loaded 1U box needs at least one 650 watter, and the fully loaded 2U needs two to keep all those disks spinning.

The PowerEdge C6100 is perhaps the most interesting box of the three cloud machines announced today, in that it is the fourth generation of compact two-socket servers created by the DCS unit. The C6100 takes half-width, two-socket motherboards and puts four of them in a 2U rack unit, two side-by-side and stacked two high in the box. All four server nodes slide in and out of the chassis independently and are hot pluggable into the power supplies and shared storage. The C6100's server boards have a dozen DIMM slots each, topping at 96GB using 8GB DIMMs, and have a PCI-Express x8 mezzanine card and an x16 riser slot.

The C6100 chassis can hold 24 2.5-inch drives or a dozen 3.5-inch drives, all mounted in the front of the unit. For SATA, you're talking 12TB of local storage, regardless of drive size because Dell is supporting 500GB 2.5-inch and 1TB 3.5-inch units, and for SAS drives, you're talking 300GB max for either 2.5-inch drives (spinning at 10K RPM) or 3.5-inch drives (15K RPM). The C6100 boards have two embedded Gigabit Ethernet ports and optional mezzanine cards for Mellanox ConnectX-2 quad data-rate InfiniBand or Intel dual-port 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapters. The C6100 has only four fans (one per server node) to cool the boxes (instead of the normal six for a 1U, two-socket server) and two power supplies, which are shared by all four server nodes. Power supplies come in 470, 750, 1100, and 1400 watt sizes.

All three PowerEdge C machines announced today support Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 or Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5.3 operating system, as well as the VMware ESXi 4.0 Update 1 and Citrix XenServer 5.5 hypervisors. The PowerEdge C boxes do not do Windows. (Or Solaris or BSD, for that matter.) But Dell was quick to point out that the DCS unit is one of the hardware suppliers behind Microsoft's Azure cloud and it looks like Dell might even end up selling Azure services in some way so they can work in conjunction with their own systems.

The other things that Dell is not doing with the PowerEdge C machines launched today are providing pricing for the machines or selling them directly to customers through its Web site, as it does with normal PowerEdge machines. Dell is also not delivering PowerEdge C boxes based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron or VIA Technologies' Nano chips, but DCS has created machines for customers based on these products. Knafo was not at liberty to discuss what DCS was planning for the impending "Lisbon" Opteron 4100 or "Magny-Cours" 6100 processors from AMD or the top-end "Nehalem-EX" Xeon 7500 processors from Intel.

The PowerEdge C machines are being peddled by the Dell sales force and its partner channel, but you have to do an engagement with the company to get the machines because Dell has to special-build the boxes and it wants to make sure customers should be buying the cloud boxes instead of normal PowerEdge servers.

In addition to the machines, Dell is also peddling preconfigured stacks of cloud boxes in half-rack or full-rack configurations running Joyent's set of cloudy infrastructure-management tools. Pricing was, of course, not announced for these cloud building blocks. And Dell has started up a partner program that aims to get various software stacks certified on the cloud servers with the ultimate goal of providing a preconfigured hardware and software stack. Canonical's Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud variant of its Linux operating system is the first infrastructure as a service (IaaS) stack certified on the cloud bundles, and Dell has partnered with Greenplum for self-service data warehousing and Aster Data for data analytics. ®

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