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March 23, 2005

Dell gets first jump on Potomac/Cranford Xeon MPs

If you are the fastest growing server maker in the world, if you don't bash Itanium, and if you don't sell rival Opteron processors, then apparently you do get to pre-announce the latest Xeon MP server processors from Intel. And that is precisely what Dell did yesterday along with top executives from Intel and database maker Oracle. Timothy Prickett Morgan reports...

By CBR Staff Writer

In addition to launching its new PowerEdge 6800 and 6850 servers, the company also put out a new rev of its OpenManage systems management software for PowerEdge servers and fleshed out details on Project MegaGrid, a grid computing project that Dell is creating with partners Oracle, EMC, Intel, Microsoft and others, that was announced last December.

At Dell, everything relates to its own view of the world, so faster four-way Xeon MP servers with 64-bit memory addressing are just what it needs to justify its contention that grids of two-way and four-way servers will make obsolete the kinds of big SMP servers that Dell has never built before and has no intention of building or selling (it has come close to reselling the ES7000 server from Unisys, and probably a few others we don’t know about).

This is a bit of a non sequitur, since the whole premise of grids and the clustered databases that reside on them – as Oracle and Dell have been espousing since Oracle 9i Real Application Clusters went mainstream more than two years ago – is that you no longer need to worry about the size of an individual machine, but rather focus on the bandwidth between machines and the number of nodes in the cluster to support larger and larger workloads.

What is closer to the truth is this: Dell doesn’t need faster four-way Xeon machines to make database clusters. It does, however, need faster four-way Xeon machines to go after similar-sized Unix and proprietary servers for customers – and mostly conservative small and mid-sized business customers who like and understand SMP servers – who think the idea of using gridded servers and clustered databases is far too complicated for their relatively modest ERP systems and other core applications.

While Dell and Oracle brag that they have some 65,000 licenses of Oracle databases running on PowerEdge servers, a number the two say has tripled in three years, and that about 30% of current Oracle engagements are for customers migrating from Unix to Windows or Linux, the very fact that neither company will say how many installations are running Oracle 9i RAC or Oracle10g in a real gridded environment (gridded not for high availability, but for true scalability of workloads) speaks volumes.

It seems likely and logical that the vast majority of Unix shops are replacing RISC SMP systems with X86 SMP systems while at the same time moving from single-tier or two-tier ERP setups to three-tier setups. This may be smart, but it certainly is not grid computing, even if customers do cluster their central databases or their application servers for high availability.

What is also true is this: with Advanced Micro Devices readying its dual-core Opterons for this summer, with Intel not expected to get its dual-core Xeons out the door until early 2006, and with IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems all selling alternative dual-core RISC chips in their Unix servers and readying dual-core Opteron servers, Dell is about the closest thing to a clear, direct, and motivated sales channel for Xeon MPs that Intel has.

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Having said all that, Dell and other X86 server vendors, who will be launching their products along with Intel’s release of the Potomac and Cranford 64-bit Xeon MPs on March 29, are going to do a pretty hefty business with these new boxes, precisely because they will offer anywhere from 10% to 65% more oomph than the 32-bit Gallatin Xeon MP platforms (depending on the workloads), and because the Intel chipsets and platforms that use today’s single-core, 64-bit Xeon MPs should be able to support the dual-core Xeon MP chips when they become available in early 2006. In this respect, the so-called Truland platform, which is based on the Intel Twin Castle 8500 chipset, is just as important as finally getting 64-bit support out the door for the Xeon MPs.

The PowerEdge 6800 is a 6U tower server that can put four of the new Xeon MPs inside and up to 64GB of main memory and 3.6TB of disk capacity (twelve drives), which can be protected with inboard or PCI-based RAID disk controllers.

Dell said that the PowerEdge servers will be available in the coming weeks, and Jeff Clarke, senior vice president of Dell’s Enterprise Product Group, said that the new Truland machines will cost about the same as their predecessors and offer about one-third more performance. He also said that Oracle 9i and Oracle 10g were certified to run in 32-bit mode on the boxes and that within the next quarter the 64-bit versions of those databases would be supported on the new servers. Dell will push Windows and Linux as the primary operating systems on these boxes, although open source BSD Unixes as well as The SCO Group’s UnixWare and OpenServer should run on them in 32-bit mode and may eventually support the 64-bit memory addressing.

Mr Clarke shed some light on the Project MegaGrid database cluster that Dell is working on. He said it has completed the installation of a 128-node cluster, comprised of two-way and four-way Xeon servers, EMC disk arrays, and the Oracle 10g database and related middleware stack. The cluster is at the heart of a competency center that Dell is building in its Austin facility.

This allows customers to test their configurations before they spend large sums of money, Mr Clarke said, obviously letting loose from his tongue exactly what Dell and Oracle hope that big Unix shops who want X86 economies and midrange Linux and Windows shops that have outgrown four-way SMP servers will do. Microsoft’s Windows is running on MegaGrid now, but Dell is working to get the Red Hat and Novell variants of Linux on the cluster, too.

Mr Clarke added that it would soon be doubling the size of the MegaGrid cluster to 256 nodes, and then build out from there. Online retailer Overstock.com had made use of the best practices that Dell developed in building the MegaGrid cluster to create a similar cluster of its own to support its internal applications.

Brigham Young University, which is running a 630-node cluster, was a prototype customer for a new service Dell is also launching called the Environment Assessment Service, also announced this week. For $5,000, a small data center can get an assessment from Dell about the impact of moving to rack-style computing from big iron boxes. (Cramming a lot of servers in a very small space inside a big data center can really mess up the weather in these controlled environments.) This service will be available in the United States at first, and will roll out through the Americas and Europe later this year.

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