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BladeRunner hunts the competition

A new player arrived on the Linux blade server horizon this week as Linux-exclusive vendor Penguin Computing launched BladeRunner. More cluster than android, this server hopes to compete with the likes of Dell for a share of a booming Linux blade server market.

The blade server market, already hinging on the edge of a market boom, picked up a new player today as Linux based hardware and clustering specialist Penguin Computing entered the ring with its new blade server, BladeRunner.

While Harrison Ford and an army of androids are distinctly absent from this version of BladeRunner, Penguin Computing executives said the entry level server represents the first time customers will be able to secure a simple "cluster in a box" platform packaged with the Scyld Beowulf clustering management operating system.

The San Francisco-based Penguin acquired Scyld Computing in June 2003, and in doing so brought Beowulf supercomputing pioneer Donald Becker on board as their chief technology officer. In 1994 Becker developed Beowulf, a method of linking together numerous inexpensive Linux systems.

Mark Walker, vice president of product management for Penguin, said that BladeRunner spoke to the success of blade servers and was confident his company's platform would tap into this hot market.

Users are increasingly focused on the software that is included along with the server.
Tony Iams
Principal AnalystD.H. Brown and Associates

A recent study conducted by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC showed that in 2004 blade servers accounted for $1.2 billion in revenues while overall sales of servers running Linux would reach more than $9 billion by 2008.

Penguin's director of engineering Phil Pokorny believed that as a Linux-only company that employed Scyld Beowulf, Penguin had a distinct difference from market competitors like Dell and HP when it came to this new box.

"Certainly having spent the last five years focused on the Linux market space and running Linux hardware brings a wealth of experience to our hardware partners in terms of understanding what the pitfalls are, what problems they may have inadvertently made, and in that way we can help Linux optimize this platform," Pokorny said.

Aim for the sweet spot

Walker said the idea of an entry level, or departmental "cluster in a box" hit a "sweet spot" of the marketplace, and cited IDC research that forecast huge gains for the server market below $250,000.

Christopher Willard, a research vice president with IDC, said that in 2003 clusters sold in technical markets accounted for $2.4 billion in revenue, while in 2000 this number was only $600 million.

"Expect the total cluster market to grow at a 17% annual compound growth rate -- that's a very aggressive rate -- to about $5.1 billion by 2009," Willard said.

Willard said the appeal of clusters in technical markets is a combination of individual mode or processor performance that is high enough to address an added technical number of applications especially in group space and a second appeal is their price performance.

"Right now it is cost effective to get a whole lot of computing power in one place," Willard said. "We are also seeing the market shift from systems essentially built by the users to systems where they are provided by vendors and come with a certain degree of verification that all pieces work and wiring done and warranty."

Hardware is good, software is better

Tony Iams, principal analyst with D.H. Brown and Associates said that Penguin would have a fight on its hands with BladeRunner, which would compete head-to-head with industry powerhouse Dell.

"It takes a lot more than price to compete with Dell," Iams said. "There's a lot of value, trust, image and an installed base [with Dell], so it's still going to be tough to compete even with a competitive price."

Iams said blade servers make it easy to get a server out to the customer and running, but then comes the matter of installing an operating system, applying patches and populating the server with user identifications and application software.

However, by including Scyld Beowulf with BladeRunner, Penguin may be a step ahead.

"Users are increasingly focused on the software that is included along with the server; IBM and HP have Director and Insight manager, while Dell has Open Manager," Iams said.

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Walker said BladeRunner features 12 dual-processor blades in a 4U chassis with low voltage technology to draw less power and require less cooling. The cooling system is completely redundant while the power and switches are optionally redundant. Base configuration features 2 Intel Xeon processors with 2 gigabytes of memory. Pricing was not available at press time.

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