Sun Fires running VMware cool hot data center

An Atlanta-based power consulting firm says its move from 23 Xeon servers down to two Opteron Sun Fires has helped drop its data center temperature by 17 degrees.

An Atlanta-based power consulting firm says its move from 23 Dell Inc. Xeon-based servers down to two Sun Microsystems dual-core AMD Opteron Sun Fire x4200 servers running VMware is helping to drop its data center temperature by 17 degrees.

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NewEnergy Associates runs intensive, grid-computing simulations for its customers, helping them to plan for potential disasters, so it is not without a sense of irony that the Siemens Co. subsidiary had to cope with its own share of urgent heat and power issues.

Last year at its main site, the snowball rolled when NewEnergy had to add a bunch of servers in a short amount of time to use new resource-hungry simulation methods helpful for assessing business risk.

After tripling its server count in six months, the situation hit its apex when dirty water shut down the company's air-conditioning (AC) and pushed temperatures up into the triple digits. Heat had shown its dangerous face, and any answer it prescribed could not come merely in the form of cooling devices.

After implementing Sun Fire servers at its main site, the company did the same at its Houston location, virtualizing away with VMware over 20 Dell Xeon servers and saving about $200,000 on upfront cooling related costs, according to Neal Tisdale, vice president of software development at NewEnergy. Tisdale added that figure does not factor in expenses associated with 14,000 watts of additional power had it not changed -- or the equivalent of "14 blow driers going all day and all night."

"We had to add a lot of computer power, and we were already at the heat envelope," Tisdale said. "The cost of buying a new AC or a new UPS [uninterruptible power supply] -- you can't just tack that on. It doesn't scale well. It would be cheaper to virtualize the heat generating stuff and use that savings to add more compute power."

Tisdale said the migration has gone better than he thought it might. It surpassed its "7-to-1" ratio goal, rolling 15 servers, 19 power supplies, 23 processors, 47 disk drives and 28 GB of RAM onto a single x4200.

Via Platespin Ltd.'s PowerConvert software, NewEnergy converted most of its Windows data during evenings and weekend hours over a two week span, taking about two-to-four hours per machine. That cost $3,000 for a "25 pack" -- to convert that many servers. Converting the Linux, which runs its SANs, was hand assembled, he said. Through the entire process, during office hours, only once did they have to blink the system for about 20 minutes, Tisdale said.

Why Sun Fire?

"It was obvious because we were very familiar with the merits of VMware, and our researchers already used Sun for high-end stuff," Tisdale said. "There was such a high-fold factor there. We're aware of the performance differences with other vendors that have Opteron. We didn't need a comparison study."

In the past two years, virtualization has become a common response to server sprawl and heat problems.

"Power prices aren't going down, utilities keep going up -- it's one of those pieces of total cost of ownership that many customers in many spaces haven't realized until months ago," said Pund-IT Research principal analyst Charles King. When imagining the sheer heat and power of a 20-plus pizza box server being replaced by two servers, the benefits of low power are clarified, King added.

Additional aspects to the NewEnergy data center include running VMware to help redundancy during failover via automatic relaunching, as well as capabilities like turning on computers remotely, a labor cost reducer.

"We don't need a data center staff in Houston," Tisdale said. "We don't even need people to go hit reboot anymore."

Tisdale added that deploying its SANs (four-to-six terabytes) with Linux and running Solaris OS in a virtualized environment is pretty straight forward. "I know no matter how many copies of Linux or Solaris I have, no one's going to come knocking on my door -- 'hey you didn't license this one,' " he said. "A lot of these companies … their contracts are not conversant for multi-core or virtualization issues. I avoid them like the plague now."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer

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