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Compaq races to release ultradense servers

The company is sharpening its strategy to cram as many servers into as little space as possible, planning to release an "ultradense" server design code-named QuickBlade.

Compaq Computer is sharpening its strategy to cram as many servers into as little space as possible, planning to release an "ultradense" server design code-named QuickBlade later this year.

With current server designs, 42 computers with 82 CPUs can be bolted into a six-foot rack. But ultimately, the ability to stuff as many as 200 or even 300 CPUs into a single rack will help slake the "insatiable demand for servers" at large companies and computing service providers, Mary McDowell, general manager of Compaq's Intel server division, said in an interview.

These ultradense servers are a key part of the server strategy not only of Compaq, but also IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Intel. The trick to very high density is mounting several of the electronics boards of CPUs inside one enclosure, like books in a bookcase.

But IBM got ahead in the skinny server game by licensing a two-processor, 1.75-inch thick design from Network Engines. "IBM captured the idea that people might want thin servers," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

This time, Compaq hopes to gain the lead. Compaq's ultradense servers will arrive late this year, McDowell said. Tom Bradicich, IBM's top Intel server designer, said his company's servers won't be the first on the market.

Compaq has numbers on its side. While IBM is a trusted name in data centers staffed by conservative computer technicians, Compaq ships more servers than any other company. According to IDC figures released Wednesday, Compaq sold 1.1 million servers in 2000. The nearest competitor, IBM, sold 608,000.

Though the QuickBlade design is Compaq's own, Intel hopes to help all computer makers build ultradense servers. Intel will offer hardware using its low-power CPUs originally designed for laptop computers for its ultradense designs.

Intel servers are a good match for ultradense designs from a financial point of view. Intel's high-volume production enables it to sell CPUs more cheaply than competing chips from rivals such as Sun Microsystems.

However, HP has its own "bladed" designs coming using its own PA-RISC chips, said Scott Hudson, worldwide marketing manager for HP's Unix server line.

And companies such as RLX Technologies and FiberCycle are using Transmeta's low-power chips.

The problem with using Transmeta is that more engineering work is required to fit the nonstandard chips into computer designs, McDowell said.

Ultradense phase two: InfiniBand
Like IBM, McDowell believes the InfiniBand connection technology will mean further developments for ultradense servers. With InfiniBand, several computing nodes can be tied together while systems for communicating with storage and network resources are located elsewhere.

"We have been ramping up our InfiniBand efforts," she said.

Compaq hopes to differentiate its QuickBlade design from other ultradense products by packaging it with high-end storage systems and Compaq management software, McDowell said. Customers will be able to buy pre-assembled--and doubtless higher-profit-margin--collections of these products.

"It's a terrific opportunity to start selling by the rack," McDowell said.

While Compaq believes most of its business will be with ultradense servers and other efforts to "scale out" computing jobs across numerous smaller computers, the company also is banking on "scaling up" jobs on single, ultrapowerful servers.

The company will release an eight-processor server based on Intel's Foster chips--the Xeon version of the Pentium 4. Customers with the current eight-processor ProLiant 8500 servers will be able to upgrade to the new CPUs, she said.

And in late 2002 or early 2003, Compaq plans to release a 32-processor server using Intel's McKinley chip. McKinley is the second-generation offering in Intel's high-end 64-bit line. Intel has yet to launch its much-delayed Itanium chip, the first in the 64-bit line.

Compaq is ready with its Itanium machines, McDowell said. "When they (Intel) say go, we'll start shipping our products," she said, adding that the revenue will be small enough that it won't be material to the company's business when the shipments begin.