Dell has been building custom designed servers for customers that are creating new data center architectures in an attempt to cut cooling costs.
Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager data center solutions, said in an interview that Dell is custom designing gear for a handful of customers "willing to try different things."
The effort is part of Dell's "Cloud Computing Solution (CSS)," which was explained in a press release earlier this week. My initial thought about Dell's release was that it was launching services much like Amazon has. However, Amazon is more likely a target customer for Dell. Dell isn't offering cloud computing services to small companies, but targeting large firms who offer cloud-like IT services. In Dell's case cloud computing the rough equivalent to utility computing.
Dell is offering design to order data center services for customers. Typically, data centers are cooled with raised floors and a lot of air conditioning. However, some customers are beginning to experiment by ditching raised floors, tinkering with air flow and altering dimensions of server racks.
In many cases, that means Dell has to cook up new specifications for its hardware based on common parts. Think of a kit car approach where autos are custom made from common parts.
Unfortunately, Norrod couldn't offer a lot of detail about what customers were doing. "I have to be a little vague here. These folks view this as their IP (intellectual property)," he said.
For these customizing customers Dell is willing to alter software, redesign a server and tailor gear according to a data center's specifications. Dell's CSS unit has roughly a dozen customers and about half of them have used Dell to create prototype equipment. Dell makes money from hardware and managed services.
Here's the process: Big customer comes to Dell for data center services and gives the company its specification and infrastructure plans. From there, the customer's plan is discussed to address everything from power supplies to processor requirements to cooling to software to network capabilities.
"We go through discovery of requirements and constraints," said Norrod. "We come back in about a month with a prototype of system for needs."
Dell takes about a month to produce the custom hardware and servers. Once a customer accepts the prototype--or kicks it back for more work--the equipment is tested. Dell has engineers, architects and software developers in Austin, Taiwan and Bangalore working on the prototypes.
Norrod couldn't discuss pricing for the prototype gear compared to servers found on Dell's site, but the company does try to "keep costs down to a reasonable level."
The big question is whether this model could scale for Dell. Norrod acknowledges that there are "limits to scalability," but over time these prototype hardware could be mass produced. Dell's CSS customers currently all have different solutions to data center design, but some commonality is emerging. For instance, a large Web company that is a Dell customer cooked up a data center design that looked a lot like what a financial services firm was attempting.
"Today the (prototype) equipment is relatively diverse, but there is some commonality. Classes of applications and infrastructure philosophies will wind up being common for approaches," said Norrod.
That'll be good news for Dell. If the Fortune 500 rushed Dell for prototype data center gear at once, the company would have its hands full.