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Intel key to Compaq's skinny-server diet

The chipmaker is a key partner in the PC maker's plan to build servers that cram hundreds of CPUs into just a few square feet of floor space.

Intel is a key partner in Compaq Computer's plan to build servers that cram hundreds of CPUs into just a few square feet of floor space, the companies plan to announce Monday.

Compaq will use chips from Intel's laptop line and support chipsets that connect those CPUs to memory and other parts of the computer. Intel will provide marketing funding and work to generate interest in the market overall. And the two companies will have hardware designers working at each other's sites to develop the servers.

Compaq is trying to get ahead in the new category of "ultradense" servers, in which naked circuit boards are stacked side by side like books in a bookshelf. The servers are used for jobs such as supporting Web pages that require lots of relatively low-power computers. Compaq lost out to IBM and others in being first to market with the current generation of skinny servers.

Intel has a lot at stake in the new market. Ultradense servers are a new vanguard in server design, which for years focused on single, immensely powerful servers instead of multitudes of comparatively wimpy machines. Intel has been locked out of this high-end market dominated by Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others, but ultradense servers offer the Santa Clara chipmaker a way into the data centers of large companies with deep pockets.

Intel is the incumbent to beat when it comes to these new servers. Although a handful of companies veer away from Intel--such as NEC using AMD processors and RLX Technologies using Transmeta--the biggest server companies use only Intel chips in their server lines.

Intel is betting that its expertise in creating low-heat, low-power chips for notebook computers will give it an advantage. Ultradense servers are constrained by the difficulty of cooling a box filled with hundreds of sizzling CPUs.

Compaq's "QuickBlade" ultradense servers will debut in the fourth quarter of this year, said Brad Anderson, vice president of the mainstream segment in the Houston company's Intel server group. By the end of the year, the company will have servers with hundreds of CPUs in a server cabinet that takes up 5.5 square feet of floor space, he said.

Compaq isn't interested in designs from Transmeta or AMD, Anderson said. "All our plans are around the Intel architecture," he said. "Emulation and code morphing is a huge tax (on) performance," he said, referring to the way Transmeta computers translate commands issued in Intel chip language into instructions the Transmeta chips understand.

For ultradense servers, Intel offers four chipsets that support varying combinations of features balanced against power consumption. Compaq is interested in the two top-end chipsets: the 440GX supporting 2GB of memory and the 440BX supporting 1GB of memory, said Tom Garrison, director of Intel's enterprise CPU group.

Intel offers two lower-end chips that consume less power, but they don't support a key feature called Error Correcting Code (ECC) that prevents many memory errors.

Compaq will use upcoming versions of Intel's mobile CPUs in its new ultradense servers, Garrison said. The coming "Tualatin" line of Intel CPUs, due midyear, will be built with smaller 0.13-micron features that make for smaller chips with lower power consumption.

The first line of Compaq ultradense servers will be made of single-processor servers. Shortly after their release, the company will begin selling more powerful dual-processor systems, Anderson said.

Those later systems require a modified Intel mobile chip, because current versions of the chip don't have circuitry required for dual-processor servers, Anderson said.