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Dell: Scale-out is the future of the data center

Mark Fontecchio
COLUMBUS, OHIO – The chief technology officer at Dell said last week that the future data center will be dominated by x86 servers.

Kevin Kettler, speaking Wednesday at Emerson Network Power's AdaptiveXchange show in Columbus, Ohio, advocated his company's focus on "scale-out" architecture, contrasting with the other three major vendors -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems -- which have their hands in scale-out and scale-up architectures.

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"Dell is a big proponent of scale-out," he said during the afternoon keynote address, later adding that "one-, two-, and four-socket systems represent the future of the data center."

The x86 systems are the only ones gaining revenue. In the past two fiscal quarters, midrange and enterprise servers have lost revenue while x86 server revenue has increased, according to recent IDC figures. Dissenters say that the capabilities of x86 systems have a ceiling, and that midrange and enterprise servers are best for certain kinds of workloads.

It makes sense that Dell would support scale-out architecture considering that it doesn't sell any servers larger than four sockets.

Dell's most expensive server is a four-socket machine that starts at just over $5,000. Less than 10% of its revenues come from server sales. Still, Dell sells more than $5 billion in servers each year.

"What's really worked out to Dell's benefit is the creation of multi-core systems," said Joe Clabby, president of research firm Clabby Analytics. "Those two-way and four-way designs they put together can really perform strongly."

Dell starts selling AMD servers
Dell this week began selling x86 servers based on processors from Advanced Micro Devices, the competitor to chip giant Intel.

Dell announced in May that it was planning to add AMD chips to some of its servers, ending the exclusive relationship it had with Intel in the server space. Other major server vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems have been selling AMD-based servers alongside Intel models for a while.

The two Dell servers that will now include AMD chips are the four-processor PowerEdge 6950 at about $16,000 and the two-processor PowerEdge SC1435 at about $5,700.

Still, Clabby doesn't agree with Kettler's assessment that scale-out will dominate the future data center.

"I think that for certain workloads scale-out is appropriate, and for certain workloads scale-up is appropriate," he said. "Scale-out works very well for decision support systems such as Web content and handling streaming and read-only data. Those types of applications run really well in scale-out environments. The short transactions that require high I/O rates, those run optimally on scale-up environments like mainframes."

Kettler said Dell determined its position by looking at issues such as wasted capacity, as well as the perceived future of processor technology and virtualization.

Kettler said that when a company is starting out small but then begins to grow quickly, it must plan out capital expenses five years down the road. By buying a scale-up machine, such as a midrange or enterprise system, they're spending more money to accommodate capacity that they're not going to need for years. By scaling out with smaller servers, he said a company can buy as needed and minimize wasted capacity.

"When that hardware gets deployed, it's actually very relevant in terms of deployment," he said about x86 systems. "If you're buying a year or two ahead, by the time you deploy that capacity, it is actually outdated in terms of the value proposition you might be looking at for your data center."

Dell is anticipating the continuing development of chip technology and the ability to fit more cores on a single silicon die. Major chipmakers Intel and AMD plan to have quad-core server chips available in the next year, and Intel has revealed a plan to develop up to 80 cores on a single chip in the next five years. With those advances, Kettler said most companies won't need to have servers with more than four sockets, because the processors inside them will be exponentially more powerful than they are today.

Kettler also thinks that virtualization technology will continue to increase scale-out server utilization. "It will get to a point where [virtualization] becomes a standard feature of the machines being shipped from a factory," he said.

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


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