IBM spinoff takes new server approach

As Big Blue's rivalry with Sun heats up at the high end, an IBM start-up begins selling a thin "blade" server with a less radical approach than that of its competitors.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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A start-up spun off from IBM has begun selling a thin "blade" server with a less radical approach than competitors trying to pack computing horsepower as densely as possible.

OmniCluster Technologies has begun selling servers that plug into existing servers' PCI slots--the same type of connection commonly used to attach devices such as network cards and storage system controllers to servers. The method essentially sets up a miniature network between the host server and all the OmniCluster servers plugged into it, said Chief Executive Chris Fleck.

That method contrasts with bladed server designs from IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Intel, which stack up blade servers in special-purpose cabinets. The goal of these "hyper-dense" designs is to stack comparatively low-end servers as densely as possible for jobs such as hosting Web pages.

The moves come as IBM and Sun intensify their rivalry at the top end of the server market. Sun last week unveiled its new top-of-the-line StarCat Unix server, officially called the Sun Fire 15K, while IBM later this week is expected to introduce its powerful new Regatta server. IBM's Power4 chip will make its first appearance in Regatta.

The current OmniCluster model, the SlotServer 1000, uses a comparatively slow but low-power Intel-compatible processor--National Semiconductor's Geode CPU running at 300MHz, Fleck said. But the company is working on a more expensive 700MHz Pentium III model due by the end of the year.

Currently, the systems are used chiefly for security applications, Fleck said. Because the systems have an external network connection and another link to the host server via the PCI data pathway, they can be used as a separate protective firewall server or to handle intrusion-detection tasks.

The Geode version costs $599 for a model with 128MB of memory and no hard disk. Adding the maximum 256MB of memory along with a 20GB hard drive moves the price up to $1,025, according to sales partner InterNet Technologies. The diskless version loads operating system software from the host computer's hard drive, Fleck said.

The OmniCluster method has limitations, though. With limits on available PCI slots, it's tough to install as many servers as blade-specific designs--RLX Technologies, for example, can fit 24 servers into a cabinet 5.25 inches tall.

In addition, there will be heating constraints with the Pentium III version, Fleck acknowledged. Using them will require power and cooling abilities that the company is working on specifying, he said.

But the bigger hurdle likely will be financial rather than technological. Being an independent server start-up is a tough business these days, with the Internet boom subsiding, the economic malaise hurting almost all tech companies, and the established server makers working on their own designs.

Among struggling independent server sellers are FiberCycle and Rebel.com, both of which have thrown in the towel, and skinny-server pioneer Network Engines, which is suffering from plunging sales.

Penguin Computing has laid off staff, as has RLX Technologies. VA Linux Systems has exited the server business altogether. Not yet clear are the prospects for Egenera, which hopes to sell a specialized Linux server costing $250,000 and up.

Boca Raton, Fla.-based OmniCluster employs more than 20 workers and hopes to grow to about 50 in the next year, Fleck said. Among the company's employees are the original designers from IBM, he said. Investors, which pumped $10 million into the company in June, include IBM, Mellon Ventures, H.I.G. Ventures, CrossBow Ventures and Cenetec.

The arrival of the Pentium version won't mean the end of the Geode line, Fleck said. "We intend to have both a low end and a high end," he said. The Pentium version will just mean the servers can be used for more CPU-intensive jobs, such as hosting Web pages that must be constructed on the fly.

The company is considering Transmeta's CPUs, "but we started with the Geode because it made sense for the market we're going after, then the Pentium III-700 because of the CPU requirements we weren't sure Transmeta could do," he said. Transmeta's CPUs are used in servers from RLX because the chips don't consume as much power, advocates say.