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Rackable Systems mini-servers provide virtualization alternative

Rackable Systems new 12-volt mini-servers are designed to run divided workloads within the CloudRack system and serve as an alternative to virtualization.

Rackable Systems Inc. says that its new 12-volt servers aim to turn virtualization on its head, but this hardware-oriented approach might be a hard sell for some data center managers.

For more on Rackable Systems:
Rackable Systems ships 12 V motherboards

The single-socket physical servers slide into Rackable's CloudRack enclosure trays and run divided workloads. They are based on what the company calls its "MicroSlice" architecture and are Rackable's smallest servers to date. Rackable is known for half-depth servers that take up less data center space than traditional rack servers.

Rackable positions the new machines as an alternative to software-based server virtualization. While virtualization software consolidates servers to run applications on independent virtual machines (VMs) that reside on fewer physical servers, the MicroSlice servers are a bunch of single-socket nodes that run divided workloads in the CloudRack enclosure. Rackable has termed this hardware approach physicalization.

"Physicalization is a different way of implementing virtualization; instead of a smaller number of large physical servers, we are making many smaller physical servers that run divided workloads," said Rackable's vice president of product management, Geoff Noer. "You install one OS on each server, and you don't have to use virtualization at all, which means you don't have to learn or manage virtualization software."

The servers within MicroSlice support up to 264 servers per cabinet (six single-socket servers per CloudRack tray, with 44 trays in an enclosure) and draw as little as 72 W of power per server using 12 V-only motherboards, according to the Freemont, Calif.-based Rackable.

Selling the skeptics
But some IT professionals may need to be persuaded about the benefits of this hardware-oriented approach. Aaron Sawchuck, the CTO and co-founder of the data center colocation facilities ColoSpace Inc., which are located throughout New Hampshire and Massachusetts, said though he is always skeptical of "revolutionary, hardware-based approaches" to just about anything, Rackable has his attention with the price point of sub-$500 per server, and the low power draw is also a huge plus. "From the data center perspective, it is great that they are marketing the electric draw per compute node -- at 72 W per server, that is compelling compared with most 1U servers. But I would want to see this proven in a real-world environment."

 I would want to see this proven in a real-world environment
Aaron Sawchuck,
VP and CTOColoSpace Inc.
That said, he doubts any data center would put 264 servers in a single rack because of the power that would require. "Seventy-two watts per server and 19 kW per rack [equals] about 950 watts per square foot This is about 10-times what most internal data centers can support and about 5-times what the newest colocation/outsourced data centers can support," Sawchuck said.

But, that doesn't mean he wouldn't consider using it in his colocation facilities. "Bottom line is that we would look at something like that given a scalable low-per-node pricing model and low-per-node electric consumption," Sawchuck said. "However, this is not a virtualization killer but could be a great alternative when virtualization doesn't make sense."

Noer said though software-based virtualization is something the company embraces, "physicalization is a way to run applications without expensive software and with good performance."

Physicalization – or just high density?
Rackable's physical approach to virtualization is ideal for workloads that can be divided to run on a larger number of servers, Noer said. "If they can, which many workloads in the cloud space do, you get better price-to-performance. … You wouldn't run a database on this, but you would run a Web server or other Internet-facing, I/O-intensive applications on these."

Analyst Gordon Haff of Seattle-based Illuminata Inc. said despite Rackable's "physicalization" marketing ploy, these new offerings are basically just servers designed for density.

"There are doubtless use cases for things like Web hosting and colocation where clients want their own physical boxes," Haff said. "But server virtualization is increasingly being looked at as being about for more than partitioning servers -- things like moving workloads around, snapshots for archiving, changing VM sizes in response to workload changes and so forth. Calling this a hardware-based approach to virtualization is just silly," Haff noted. "Nothing against the servers, but this is marketing gone wild," Haff remarked.

Mark Peters, a server and storage analyst at Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group, said once you get past the terminology – MicroSlice and physicalization - the technology is a "perfectly decent idea."

"What I see is an elegant offering being obfuscated by the semantics," Peters said. "Everything in computing is about economics and how you use your resources. … This is really just a low-cost basic building block approach to hosting applications, as opposed to an expensive software approach."

Improving energy efficiency
One way these servers reduce data center costs is through the power supply; the motherboards are 12 V-only, instead of the multiple voltages used in the majority of servers today. Server power supplies convert 110 V AC (or alternating current) power to DC (or direct current) power at 3 V, 5 V and 12 V, which wastes up to a third of the total energy consumed by a server before it reaches computing components, according to Google Inc., which uses 12-V to power its own servers.

When comparing Rackable's 12-V motherboards with those using multiple voltages, the single output supply is 91% efficient — 3% more efficient than the multi-output option, Noer said. "It doesn't sound like a lot, but that 3% adds up to a lot of watts saved."

Whether a server uses a single output or a multiple output makes no difference to the end user, because the power distribution happening within a server is not visible, Noer said.

In addition to the promise of reducing power costs, the acquisition cost for MicroSlice servers are a bargain; configurations start at less than $500. How? These servers combine inexpensive desktop components with standard server components. "We are really combining desktop components with server features, like ECC [Error-Correcting Code] memory, and remote management capabilities and creating a very dense, cloud-computing solution that is focused on value," said Noer. "This is a new class of server that has not existed in the market before; servers at this price range won't have ECC memory, they usually have about half a gig of memory. This is a much more robust platform at a low price."

The new MicroSlice products are available in CloudRack tray and half-depth server configurations, using Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) board designs that support AMD's dual -core Athlon and tri-core or quad-core Phenom processors. All these products support Rackable's Roamer, a remote server management module.

The two new CloudRack Trays support either three or six servers, two or four dual-inline memory module (DIMM) slots, and each have an 2.5-inch hard drive. The two new half-depth servers both use the AMD Athlon X2 CPU, have two DIMM slots, and one 3.5-inch internal hard drive. A two 3.5-inch or four 2.5-inch hot-swap hard drive option is also available.

As for users, Rackable claims a few large Internet companies have adopted CloudRack, but they are not willing to speak with the media, and their names could not be released.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer. And check out our data center blogs; Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro

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