Dell targets high-end server market

With a low-cost weapon it calls the 'brick,' the computer maker aims to shatter the dominance of IBM and Sun Microsystems. The new server architecture is due in 2002.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--Speed improvements to standard computer technology will allow Dell Computer to take on high-end server competitors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems in 2002, a Dell senior executive said Wednesday.

Dell is currently locked out of the market for high-end servers, which draw on the power of dozens of computer processors by linking them through a technique called symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP). SMP uses various high-speed communication technologies to connect the CPUs, which can then collectively handle heavy-duty tasks, such as managing Wal-Mart's orders or processing Goldman Sachs' trades.

With its most powerful machine being a relatively small eight-processor system, Dell hasn't been able to tackle the high-end market and its masses of CPUs.

That will change at the end of 2002, when Dell introduces a new server architecture it calls the "brick," said Kevin Libert, director of Dell's Enterprise Systems Group, speaking at IDC's Enterprise Server Vision conference. Each brick is a four-processor computing module that's connected to several others by way of upcoming high-speed communication technology.

While high-end servers such as Sun's E10000 and its upcoming StarCat use proprietary interconnection methods to join the CPUs into a single server, Dell will rely on industry standard techniques, Libert said--perhaps upcoming versions of Ethernet networking, but more likely the InfiniBand technology that's almost a reality.

But technological obstacles make it hard to get acceptable performance from InfiniBand when used in such a way, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. The current proprietary designs used for SMP have proved much harder to dethrone than many had thought.

Eunice said he's not very optimistic about the use of InfiniBand for SMP. "It may be possible in the future," he said, "but it sounds very theoretical at present."

The key problem, according to Eunice, is the delay when a processor communicates with remote memory. With current SMP designs, that ranges between 300 to 600 nanoseconds (billionths of a second), but with InfiniBand, it takes about 1,000 to 2,000 nanoseconds, Eunice said.

"Dell is looking at this never having built those big systems. Everyone that comes to SMP believes that they are going to lick the dragon better than anyone else that came along. They all find out that the dragon is one tough beast," Eunice said. "At Sun, five years after they introduced the first SMPs, the third and fourth processors (in a four-processor SMP server) still reduced system performance."

But if Dell succeeds, it has the potential to put the squeeze on the high-end products from Sun, IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard. Libert said he expects Dell's approach to cost about a tenth of those proprietary designs.

Dell traditionally tries to upset the dynamics of the computer industry by jumping into markets where products are made of standard building blocks, not customized designs. The company prides itself on being able to manufacture and sell those standardized systems more cheaply than competitors. It has employed that strategy to fight its way to the top of the desktop computer market and the top of the U.S. server market.

High-end servers are prize products to sell, and not only because their price tag often exceeds $1 million. The servers also often tow along deals for storage systems, lower-end servers, and installation and support services.

Key to Dell's plan is how well the connection between bricks works, because one processor can't afford to wait very long while trying to fetch data from memory located on the other side of the system. InfiniBand, expected to arrive in a few products at the end of this year, is the most likely method to link the bricks together, Libert said.

But eventually, standard Ethernet could suffice as well, he said. In four or five years, Ethernet will likely transfer data at 100 or 1,000 gigabits per second, meaning that the raw speed could overcome some of Ethernet's disadvantages. Libert calls this situation "brute-force dynamics," likening the challenge to screwing in a screw when you don't have the proper tool: "If you don't have a screwdriver and do have a big enough hammer, that sucker is going in," he said.

Another change is in store at Dell. Like rivals IBM, HP, Sun and Compaq, Dell is working on "bladed" server designs, which tightly stack many servers into a single enclosure like books in a bookshelf. Each server is an electronics board with processors, memory, a network connection and, potentially, disk drives.

Blades allow computing resources to be packed very densely into computing centers for tasks such as serving up Web pages or converting content so it fits on a cell phone screen. Libert said blade systems will likely ship in larger quantities than more conventional rack-mounted servers in 2003.

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