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Cobalt offers cheaper clustering option

The server appliance maker joins the rush to bring "cluster" technology to Intel-based servers with new software that is geared for reliability.

Cobalt Networks has joined the rush to bring "cluster" technology to Intel-based servers, a cost-conscious way to make computers approach the reliability of more powerful machines.

The company has begun selling its StaQware software, which allows one Cobalt computer to take over for another if the first fails. The product is aimed at Internet service providers who rent server space to customers putting up Web or e-commerce sites, said Kelly Herrell, vice president of marketing at Cobalt.

Cobalt makes "server appliances," special-purpose computers set up to handle specific tasks such as hosting Web sites. The computers run the Linux operating system and are built around Intel chips.

The new StaQware clustering software costs $500 during a promotional introductory period, but the price tag will increase to $1,000 later, Herrell said. Service providers interested in buying the software will be able to pay off the expense by offering the software as a premium service.

Clustering is taking off as a way to squeeze better service out of comparatively inexpensive servers that make up much of the Internet. While clustering has been historically a very expensive option limited to high-end computers, it's getting cheaper as more customers demand ways to avoid the expense and embarrassment that results when Internet necessities such as email or a Web site crash.

IBM is pushing less expensive clustering but faces not only standard competitors such as Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard but newcomers such as Cobalt.

Software is key to clustering--in particular the operating system and critical components such as the database. Microsoft has improved clustering in Windows 2000, though various versions of Unix but options are way ahead and clustering is starting to crop up with Linux with products from Red Hat, TurboLinux and others.

While Cobalt's software is cheaper than many alternatives, it isn't as sophisticated in some ways. For example, if a person is midway through fetching information from a database when the primary server fails, the query must be resubmitted, Herrell said.

With Cobalt's StaQware, the backup computer mirrors all the actions of the master computer. A "heartbeat" signal is exchanged between the two computers periodically to reassure each that the other is operational. If the heartbeat signal is lost, the backup takes over for the primary server.

To use the software, each server must have two network ports--one that connects to the outside Internet, and one to connect to its pair in the cluster. Cobalt's computers come with two network ports.

Cobalt's custom designs have small electronics boards, making them less of a power hog than traditional Intel servers, said Peder Ulander, senior product marketing manager. That saves money, particularly for companies bolting hundreds of such servers to racks in air-conditioned rooms.

A growing portion of Cobalt's business is with customers such as telecommunications companies that buy more than a thousand of Cobalt's machines, Herrell said.