Dell scraps eight-way line, pushes clustering

While eight-way Intel Corp. boxes running database and transactional applications remain a staple in most large data centres, Dell Inc.’s decision to scrap its high-end line of eight-processor servers last week highlights an evolving trend toward clustering low-end boxes, analysts say.

Dell said it would shelve its eight-way product line, although it will continue servicing its current PowerEdge 8450 customers through the foreseeable future. The move is in line with a strategy Dell articulated in the spring to help customers cut server costs by encouraging them to use clusters of lower-priced Intel boxes to get the processing power of more expensive, bigger boxes.

“IDC’s belief is that a long-term trend in the industry is to be able to couple together groups of smaller-scale systems like four-way or two-way servers to accomplish a lot of the tasks that bigger traditional (symmetric multiprocessing) systems could only do,” said Mark Melenovsky, an analyst at IDC.

Not that this spells trouble for big SMP boxes. Both IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are committed to their eight-way Intel server businesses and say that they are seeing demand for the boxes not only to run big applications, but also as customers consolidate proliferating Intel servers onto single machines.

“Clustering is good for problems that can be easily subdivided and has some real advantages from a hardware cost standpoint,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. “But if the problem doesn’t lend itself to that kind of decomposition then that’s not necessarily the best solution.”

Nevertheless, the demand for eight-processor systems has taken a hit as a result of the tough economy, IDC said. Of about 415,000 x86-based servers shipped during the first quarter this year, only about 3,000 were eight-processor systems, the research firm said.

The stepped-up power of dual processor Xeon chips isn’t helping the eight-way market, either, as businesses find they can get what they need in lower-cost low-end boxes, analysts said.

“Customers are looking for short-term (ROI) for their IT infrastructure, so they’re buying two-ways when and where they can instead of potentially investing in a large-scale system that they might grow into over years,” Melenovsky said.

At veterinary research firm Intervet, for example, eight-way systems only got a passing glance. Chad Elliott, technology team leader at the Millsboro, Del., company, said clustering two-way PowerEdge 2650s and four-way PowerEdge 6650s gives him the processing power he needs, while protecting him from downtime because of hardware failures.

“We looked at clustering for the fault tolerance it provides,” he said. “With one big server, when that goes down everything on that server is down until you get it fixed. With a clustered solution, if you lose one physical server within the cluster, it all fails over to a server that is working…With a big eight-way box, it’s putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Bill Hicks, senior vice-president of technology and CIO at Precision Response in Miami, said that managing two-way and four-way boxes is easier than handling a more sophisticated eight-way machine.

“Getting two-way or four-way boxes to perform well is much easier than making eight- to 32-way systems work well,” he said. “Complex systems cost more and introduce more risk.”

But there is also the headache of managing multiple low-end boxes, said Jason Robohm, director of technical services at Crossmark Holdings in Plano, Tex.

Most applications aren’t optimized to run in distributed environments and so users aren’t getting a true shared resource cluster, said Robohm, who runs applications such as Lawson, Exchange and SQL on eight-way ProLiant servers.

“People are able to get good performance at a reasonably good price in a clustered four-way environment, but they’re not taking advantage of the total eight processors because it’s four for one (instance) of the database and four for another (instance),” he said. “If you need enterprise level, mission-critical, big-transactions-per-second processing, eight-way is the only way to go.”

Robohm said it’s interesting to see Dell scrap an Intel platform, but said the eight-way market requires more engineering and customization than the one-way and two-way markets that Dell commoditized. For example, HP stepped up its eight-way systems earlier this year with a new F8 chipset and a hot-pluggable RAID memory feature.

IBM’s Enterprise X-Architecture lets its eight-way systems scale up to 16 Xeon MP processors. Later this year, it will be able to support up to 32 processors, the company said.

“That’s something that Dell doesn’t have access to,” Robohm said. “So if they kept down the road of eight-way servers they would always be second fiddle.”

Insight 64’s Brookwood agreed.

“Customers who are looking for eight-way or above don’t feel comfortable buying it from a company like Dell,” he said. “It’s not that they wouldn’t buy it at all. It’s just that they wouldn’t buy it from Dell.”

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