Hardware Today: Looking Beyond Big

Tuesday Sep 13th 2005 by Drew Robb
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We dive past the top-five vendors in quarterly server shipment and revenue statistics to look at some of the interesting smaller players: Colfax International, Egenera, Tyan Computer, and Unisys.

The latest batch of server statistics from the Framingham, Mass. research firm IDC revealed little that was new: The top-five vendors continued to dominate the market in the second quarter of 2005, accounting for nearly 85 percent of $12 billion dollars in total server shipments.

To read the subsequent analysis, one would think that there is no life beyond the top five and the white box market, which we explored last week.

Other surveys, however, reveal that  less-prominent players have found niches. Although IBM dominated the June 2005 Top 500 Supercomputers list with its Blue Gene cluster series, Silicon Graphics (Mountain View, Calif.), Cray (Seattle, Wash.), and California Digital Corporation (Fremont, Calif.), each had new systems that made the the Top 10.

It is this market we turn our attention to this week. We spoke to four vendors that manufacture everything from bare-bones servers to supercomputers to see what is new and what they plan to release over the next year.

Management and Virtualization

Tyan Computer, a Taiwan-based firm with its engineering headquarters in Fremont, Calif., sells both bare-bones server platforms and system boards.

"Tyan historically has done well in markets that require mid to high-end servers or workstations," says John Nguyen, Product Manager at Tyan's Fremont office. "Recently, we have found a great deal of success in introducing products to entry-level markets with compact, lower-cost platforms, and systems that enable customers to build entire networks at manageable costs."

Its Transport servers, which are available through VARs and resellers, come in 1U to 5U configurations with AMD Opteron or Intel Xeon or P4 processors. The top-of-the-line Transport VX50 was announced in June and will be ready for mass shipment in fourth quarter 2005. It supports up to eight Opteron 800 series processors, 128 GB of DDR400/333 memory, and eight hard drives, four of which are hot-swappable.

"Trends toward pay-for-use and pay-for-service will continue to evolve and become one of the key battlefields in 2006." — Chander Khanna, general manager of Unisys ClearPath solutions and services

"There have been a number of new developments in the motherboard and IT system industries over the past few months, including the emergence of multicore technology and virtualization," Nguyen continues. "All of these are highly beneficial in providing customers with the ability to increase efficiency and performance in their applications, while at the same time leveraging existing software and hardware architectures to keep cost overhead low."

Looking ahead to the next three to six months, he sees a gradual migration from PCI, PCI-X, and DDR400 to PCI Express, DDR2, and SATA-II. He also foresees Fully-Buffered DIMM (FBDIMM), Serial Attached SCSI (SAS), and Intel's new multicore processors becoming mainstream in 2006.

"In addition, there are several new developments in remote management architectures and implementations which should help provide more convenience and options to customers overall," says Nguyen. "It is no longer an enterprise-only technology. Many midsize businesses are realizing the value of being able to consolidate IT management resources while retaining control over growing network systems."

Mainframe Java

While Unisys of Blue Bell, Penn. has a long hardware history, going as far back as 1873 to the Remington typewriter and then the ENIAC and UNIVAC in the 1940s and 1950s. In the past decade, its emphasis shifted to providing the IT services that now account for more than 80 percent of its revenue. Nevertheless, Unisys sold more than $1 billion worth of technology products in 2004, including mainframes, Linux and Windows servers, and printers.

"One of the things that makes Unisys stand out is our deep knowledge and experience serving clients in financial services, the public sector, telecom and transportation, and the Federal government," says Chander Khanna, general manager of Unisys ClearPath solutions and services. "Our expertise in these markets builds on our historical ability to deliver end-to-end solutions and services built on a very powerful foundation of Unisys technology."

In the past few months, Unisys made several additions to both its mainframe and server areas. In early June, it announced the availability of a "Real Time Capacity" (RTC) series of its ES7000 servers. The ES7000 RTC servers are the first Intel-based servers providing capacity on demand for Windows and Linux (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS version 4).

The following month, Unisys announced three additions to its ClearPath Libra server series: the Libra Models 595, 585, and 300, all of which are designed to run mainstream applications, such as those built using Java J2EE, in a mainframe environment. The new servers range in price from $50,000 to $30 million. Later this year, Unisys will introduce a new pricing model called pay-for-service in which clients pay for computing power used according to a pre-defined metric applicable to their business, rather than on a per-processor basis.

"Trends toward pay-for-use and pay-for-service will continue to evolve and become one of the key battlefields in 2006," says Khanna. "I think we will also start to see the focus on information life cycle management start to pick up steam, and we'll begin to see greater virtualization within disparate operating environments."

>> Colfax, Egenera

Dual-Core and Diskless

Colfax International of Sunnyvale, Calif., which has been in business since 1987, caters to high-end scientific research and other performance-driven applications for digital entertainment render farms, oil and gas exploration, governments, financial services, and educational institutions. It has Intel- and AMD-based rackmount and pedestal servers from 1U to 8U. Rather than just selling the hardware, it ships complete compute packages.

"Our specialties include full rackmount, top-to-bottom solutions with full cabling, labeling, burn-in and quality assurance," says Michael Fay, Colfax's vice president of sales. "We will load the operating systems, the full application stack, and optimize the hardware and software before shipping it to our clients worldwide."

The company's 8U storage server comes with dual AMD Opteron 200 series processors, up to 16 GB of DDR RAM and 40 hot-swappable SATA drives. For clusters, it has 1U compute nodes with dual Opteron processors and has recently added three new 1U boxes (models 890, 1080, and 1081), which use Intel processors. The 890 has two Xeon processors, while the 1080 and 1081 use the dual-core Pentium D processors. The cluster nodes can ship with or without hard drives.

"Currently we ship a number of cluster solutions that are diskless, but usually they have one disk," says Fay. "The drives only add about $50 or $60 to the cost, so when you take that out of the cluster is is not a very significant savings.

While diskless servers are not a big seller at this point, he sees a great deal of customer interest in 64-bit and dual-core processors.

"We are a launch partner for both Intel and AMD," says Fay, "so any new dual-core releases from either company will be reflected in our platform offerings."

A Less RISCy Approach

Susan Davis, vice president of marketing and product management for Egenera, in Marlboro, Mass., also sees growth in 64-bit and dual core. In May, the company added two new server blades to its BladeFrame system:

  • A 4-processor, eight-core blade using AMD's Opteron Model 875, with 1 MB of L2 cache per core, and 32 GB of registered ECC DDR Chipkill memory
  • A 2-processor, four-core model with Opteron Model 275s, 1 MB of L2 cache per core, and 8 GB of registered ECC DDR Chipkill memory

Both models use 1GHz HyperTransport.

However, although increasing the number of cores adds computing power, it also adds to the management load.

"Issues are now emerging around how to manage data center infrastructure at a more granular level," says Davis. "Things are only getting more complex!"

Egenera's approach to simplification is its "PAN" (Processing Area Network) architecture and management software, called PAN Manager. The software provides server virtualization, continually monitors the system's health and performance, and optimizes the system.

"Linux, virtualization, and blades have moved from early adopters to the mainstream market," says Davis. "Customers are using these platforms to simplify complex infrastructure and deliver better levels of service and agility to the business."

A key market for Egenera's blade servers has been government agencies, but the blades are also finding application in the hosting arena.

"Government IT groups are migrating from RISC to x86, but they still require a mission-critical, redundant, high availability architecture, which BladeFrame provides," she says. "We've also seen increased activity from the hosting market, which had all but vanished a few years ago."

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