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Dell clusters servers with Microsoft

The PC maker unveils plans for stringing a number of servers together to create powerful computer clusters, based on Microsoft technology once code-named Wolfpack.

Reaching deeper into the big-computer "back rooms" at corporations, Dell Computer (DELL) will unveil tomorrow its plans for stringing a number of servers together to create powerful computer clusters, based on Microsoft (MSFT) technology.

This technology will give Microsoft- and Intel-based PC vendors their first real shot at penetrating the hallowed "big-iron" back rooms, until now the almost-exclusive domain of Unix computers and mainframe-class machines.

By announcing a configuration tomorrow and releasing the technology for sale next month, Dell will become one of the first vendors to release NT clustering technology certified by Microsoft. But any lead won't last long. Most major vendors are expected to come out with systems in the very near future.

Clustering essentially creates a quick-response, intelligent backup system in case one of the servers, or one of its components, fails. Under clustering, two or more servers are tied together through communications lines. If one fails or goes down, other servers in the cluster pick up the computing load. Users, as a result, suffer far fewer network outages.

Until now, clustering technology has generally been available only as proprietary technology on Unix platforms, said Lary Evans, vice president and general manager of the server group at Dell. Microsoft's Server Cluster server, previously code-named Wolfpack, brings the technology to the growing NT server market by providing computer vendors, resellers, and IT managers with the means to tie systems together in a fail-safe bond.

Vendors are not releasing complete new systems for Server Clustering. Rather, they are modifying existing hardware to accommodate clustering.

Dell's PowerEdge Cluster configuration is based on two PowerEdge 6100 servers, which can accommodate up to four Pentium Pro processors. Prices range from $59,093 to $79,927 for basic configurations. At a minimum, Dell recommends users install two Power Edge 6100 servers, each with 4GB hard drives, 128MB of memory, two network interface cards, and two RAID controllers. Dell will sell complete clusters as well as kits for existing customers to cluster current servers.

Over time, the number of servers that can be tied together in a cluster will increase, said Evans. The next iteration of Server Cluster will also include improved interconnections between servers to allow the machines to exchange increasingly complex communications.

Additionally, the number of processors per server will increase to eight next year, he added, after Intel releases a standard eight-way configuration based on technology from Corollary.

Minimum hardware requirements are relatively high because of how clustering works, said John Fruehe, group manager, segment productivity, at Dell. At times, a lone server will have to carry the computing weight of two, he noted.

Later in the year, Dell will release a configuration based on the PowerEdge 4200 Server, bringing Pentium II processor technology to clustering.

While Dell's Server Cluster will push NT systems deeper into corporate enterprise networks, said Evans and others, it will ramp up slowly. "A lot of these systems will go in data centers and these people are very cautious," he said. Dell will provide service and support for the machines directly, as well as through Digital Equipment's configuration and service group, which acts as a subcontractor for Dell.

Jerry Sheridan, director and principal analyst at market research firm Dataquest, said that NT server clustering will fill a need in the market, although it will not initially challenge Unix clustering solutions, which have been around since the '80s.

Unix vendors can tie 8 to 16 or more servers using 4 or more processors each together in a web, he said. Microsoft's Server Cluster currently at the most allows users to tie two servers using four processors each. Typically, increasing the number of processors increases the speed and overall performance of a server.

Sheridan further added that while Dell might be the first NT vendor to showcase a fully certified solution, nearly everyone else already has a configuration ready to go.

"You will probably see systems from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq, and NCR probably very quickly," he said. "Then you will see more over the next 30 to 60 days."