Microservers: Blades rebooted

Intel's microserver reference design brings to mind blades as they were originally conceived by RLX Technologies during the Internet boom.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
2 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--General manager of Intel Architecture Group Sean Maloney's announcement of a reference design for a "micro server" during his Tuesday afternoon keynote at the Intel Developer Forum brought me a sense of deja vu.

Intel's Sean Maloney holding microserver. Intel

He disclosed "a new ultra-low-voltage Intel Xeon 3000 series processor featuring a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of only 30 watts. To complement the broad range of dense and power-optimized platform offerings, Intel also demonstrated publicly for the first time a single-socket 'micro server' reference system which will help enable micro server innovation and future specification." Intel plans to ship the 30-watt dual-core chip in Q1 on 2010; a 45-watt quad-core version is set to ship immediately.

A reference system is primarily intended to demonstrate a concept. It provides a hands-on experience for partners and customers and therefore an opportunity to experiment with and fine-tune the basic approach. The microserver reference design will accommodate 16 server modules in a 5U-high (8.75-inch) chassis. The server boards are approximately 8-inches by 4.5-inches.

Jason Waxman, the general manager of high density computing at Intel, told me that they see the primary target for this class of system as "hosting companies that do a lot of white boxes." White boxes are systems that are often assembled in-house from component parts such as motherboards and cases. Waxman added that such companies nonetheless want many of the features associated with servers--such as memory with error correcting code (ECC).

In Intel's view of the world, microservers very much target service providers and companies that host busy Web sites and otherwise are associated with high-scale network computing. It sees this market as distinct from large high-performance computing (HPC) installations. Vendors such as HP tend to treat network computing and HPC as more of an overlapping customer group.

My deja vu when it comes to microservers relates to the fact that we've seen them before. They used to be called blades.

That's not to say that blade servers don't already exist today, but they've largely evolved into a much different concept from how they were initially conceived. The blades sold today by the likes of Cisco, Dell, HP, and IBM are about virtualization and integration. They pull together computing, networking, and storage and tightly integrate them both physically and through software. They are, in a sense, a form of scale-out consolidation.

Sun has largely eschewed this integration with their blade product line. However, Sun blades are heavily focused on high-performance computing--even to the point of integrating the HPC-centric InfiniBand interconnect on some of its products.

Rather, microservers hark back to the days of RLX Technologies, the company that did the most to promote blade servers during the Internet boom of circa 2000. Microservers are simply thin servers--compact, cheap, and simple. They provide cable simplification. They let hosting providers allocate low-cost physical servers to customers who don't want to share using virtualization.

Microservers bring blades back to their roots. Everything old is new again.