Dell server pushes power to the edge

With its latest servers, Dell Computer Corp. says it recognizes a shift in the way people buy servers these days, considering stability and total cost of ownership as well as performance.

The box builder from Austin, Tex. last month unveiled the PowerEdge 1650 and 4600, two servers for opposite ends of the market.

On one hand the 1650 stands small at 1.75 inches high, but the rack-mounted device packs corporate-class performance, said Robert Mah, Dell Canada’s enterprise product manager.

“It’s actually the slimmest form factor available in the market,” he said. Still, “when you have something this small, trying to pack a lot of technology into it becomes a challenge.”

Dell consulted notebook computer designs to learn about cooling and component layout inside tiny packages. Performance, however, comes from server-sized pieces such as dual Intel Pentium III microprocessors, up to 4GB of memory, three SCSI hard drives for 210GB of storage space, dual gigabit NICs, RAID options, remote management, as well as redundant power and cooling.

Mah said the 1650 is designed for Web hosting and ISP applications like caching and load balancing. He added that the device serves tight network operating environments, places where space is at a premium.

The 4600, on the other hand, is meant for customers with more room and intensive applications, like databases and messaging. This bigger server offers two Intel Xeon processors reaching speeds of 2.2GHz, a 400MHz front-side bus and space for 10 hard disks or 730GB of stored info.

It relies on a wide-piped chipset from ServerWorks Corp. Dubbed Grand Champion HE System I/O, this component uses the massive front-side bus to delete a common bottleneck in server performance, Mah said.

But performance isn’t the be-all and end-all of server design.

“If you talk to the large corporate accounts, especially the public sector accounts, they like stability,” Mah said. “They’re not looking for the latest, the greatest and the fastest, they want something reliable and stable that will last for three to five years. If they have to compromise on performance a little bit, they’re willing to because they’re very adverse to change.”

Alan Freedman, an industry analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, agreed.

“People are purchasing differently these days,” he said. “With the economy the way it is, people are looking at filling immediate needs, buying something that’s going to get them through until the economy picks up or their spending budgets are returned. They’re not only looking at lowest cost, but even more so total cost of ownership and return on investment.”

However, that’s not the case for all of the company’s customers. At the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, Professor Ue-Li Pen performs “big fluid dynamic simulations…to understand how the universe began and what the universe currently looks like.”

Pen has plenty of space, so the 1650 doesn’t speak to his situation. Instead, he uses eight Dell PowerEdge 7150 servers to learn the secrets of the universe.

“We’re an academic outfit and we do computations,” Pen said, adding that his situation is different from that of the average corporation. “For us, speed and performance are really the only issues. We’re not like a bank or something, where we have to worry about our machines going down. We can tolerate a lot more in general on reliability than most commercial customers.”

Pen said he likes Dell’s philosophy with servers because the vendor focuses on “high-price performance” across its product line.

Freedman said Dell did well last year whereas other server makers ran into trouble. Although IDC Canada has yet to compile last year’s data, “what we’re predicting for 2001 is that Dell is going to be one of the only server vendors to grow its revenues.”

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