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RackSaver, AMD heat up the server wars

RackSaver gets set to unveil servers running Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, as the two companies stoke David-and-Goliath battles in the corporate market.

RackSaver will release servers running Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices next quarter, as the two companies heat up the David-and-Goliath battles in the corporate computing market.

San Diego, Calif.-based RackSaver, which counts Pixar Animation and Shell Oil as customers, will unveil Opteron-based rack servers April 22, the same day the chip comes out, as well as Opteron-based machines that slide into the company's blade server system, said Gene Kim, vice president of sales and marketing for RackSaver.

Although smaller than Dell Computer or IBM, RackSaver is to date the largest manufacturer to commit to the upcoming chip. The decision also highlights the challenges and opportunities for AMD in the corporate market. AMD did not respond to inquiries for comment.

On one hand, AMD and RackSaver face an uphill climb in getting notoriously conservative corporate buyers to try, let alone buy, new types of hardware. RackSaver's Opteron computers are based on designs from Newisys.

"It is a hard sell to start out with," Kim said. "It is a new processor, and (Newisys is) a new company."

On the other, the growing popularity of Linux clusters--conglomerates of one-, two- and four-processor servers tackling tasks that would ordinarily require a supercomputer--has opened the door for smaller manufacturers to carve out niches that behemoths like IBM or Hewlett-Packard can't always adequately squeeze into.

Besides displacing Sun Microsystems servers at Pixar, RackSaver has installed large server systems at graphics chip designer Nvidia, energy company Conoco, and Industrial Light and Magic, the effects studio behind the "Star Wars" films. The company also won an award from Intel for selling more Xeon chips than any other tier-two server maker in North America, Kim said, a category that includes pretty much everyone outside the multinational brands.

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"They've had traction in some of the high-performance computing areas," said David Freund, an analyst at Illuminata. "The key is going to be how these smaller players can act as a boutique firm."

The competitive field, though, could become crowded rapidly. Newisys is discussing licensing its Opteron server and motherboard designs to "virtually all" of the major manufacturers, including overseas manufacturers such as NEC and Fujitsu-Siemens, said Jack Steeg, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

"It is nip and tuck as to whether they will jump in the pool," Steeg said. Many of these companies are buying seed units from Newisys, he said. Some are also already telling some potential customers that they will provide them Opteron servers based on Newisys designs if needed.

"A couple of them are bidding our products," in contract proposals to scientific organizations, Steeg said.

Rack and stack
As the name suggests, RackSaver specializes in servers that take up less space than wares from competitors. In general, the company concentrates on large contracts, where a private company or a university is seeking to install hundreds, if not thousands, of servers.

"We've got customers with 10,000 nodes (individual processors) or more," Kim said. "Since 2001, we have installed more Linux-based clusters in the oil and gas segment than the tier one manufacturers combined."

Like its competitors, the company has developed its own set of tools to help information technology executives manage these massive computer collections. The tools can warn of hardware meltdowns, monitor switches and help administrators shift computing burdens.

Additionally, RackSaver has designed its own cooling systems, because heat is a special problem in dense blade servers.

The design of the company's blade system will also provide a smooth avenue for the acceptance of both AMD's and RackSaver's technologies. The BladeRack system can simultaneously contain six different chips: Intel's Pentium III, Xeon and Itanium, and AMD's Athlon, Opteron and Athlon64. Thus, by buying RackSaver's blade system, customers can experiment with AMD chips and install them, if need be, for regular use.

The racks that will accommodate the Opteron chips "are going to be the same as the ones installed at Pixar," Kim said.

Large manufacturers, however, may begin to tout how different types of chips can fit into their racks, Freund said. IBM, for instance, is working with Cisco Systems to fit networking equipment into its rack.

The Opteron-compatible products coming in April will include a two-processor 1U rack server, a two-processor 2U rack server with hot-swappable drives, and blade racks that can incorporate 44, 66, 88 or 132 processors.

Newisys designed the 1U and 2U servers and designed elements of the blades, according to Kim and Steeg. The designations 1U and 2U refer to the dimensions of the server.

Additionally, the company will release a small blade that can house eight Itanium processors or 11 Opteron or Xeon processors. The small blade server will be tuned to work with Oracle and IBM databases and pitched at customers in the financial services market.