Server makers think thin with new offerings

A trio of companies releases new superthin servers, advancing the frontiers of how much power can be crammed into a machine as thick as a pizza box.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
A trio of companies released new superthin servers Monday, advancing the frontiers of how much power can be crammed into a machine as thick as a pizza box.

The market for these rack-mountable servers is growing rapidly, as corporations and service providers build large data centers to house e-commerce operations, Web sites, wireless Internet features and other tasks that demand lots of networked machines. But with data center floor space at a premium, there is tremendous pressure to squeeze as much computing power or storage capacity into as little space as possible.

Gartner analyst Pushan Rinnen says it would be difficult for a smaller server company to make much headway against some of the major players, such as IBM and Compaq Computer.

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Skinny new servers arriving Monday include models from:

 Start-up Einux, which began shipping a dual-CPU system for $2,500, a low price for a computer that fits into a space 1U (1.75 inches) high. Einux will announce next week at the Comdex trade show that it has begun shipping a 1U machine that houses four separate computers.

 Network Engines, a pioneer in making dual-processor systems 1U thick, will announce a foray into storage servers with its Voyager line. The units can hold as much as 288GB of data in one machine.

 Freshly renamed API NetWorks, previously known as Alpha Processor, will introduce a server that packs two of Compaq Computer's powerful Alpha CPUs into a 1U space.

These smaller companies face formidable competition from big outfits, though. For example, IBM, while an early partner with Network Engines, now has its own two-processor, 1U server. Compaq has the similar "Photon." And dominant server seller Sun Microsystems is selling its single-processor 1U Netra t1 "Flapjack" servers by the thousands.

But larger competitors aren't always bad, as they often sign deals to resell start-ups' cutting-edge hardware under their own brand names. IBM relied on Network Engines before coming up with its own design last month.

"Some tier-one (computer manufacturers) are interested," Einux chief executive Rex Wong said of his company's four-in-one server. One market for the server is made up of Web-hosting companies that charge a premium to house Web sites for customers who want a server all to themselves.

Concerns about overheating
Einux, like all companies trying to squeeze ever-hotter CPUs into a small space, has to worry about overheating. The four-in-one's design uses 20 fans and pushes air from the left side of the server to the right side, a change from the usual front-to-back airflow pattern.

The method requires that customers mount the systems using special rails with gaps to let the air pass, Wong said. Einux also uses heat-radiating aluminum cases for the systems.

Einux also sells storage systems, file servers that fit into the network-attached storage (NAS) category, with prices between $1,495 for a 40GB model and $2,995 for a 164GB model. Wong said the company is working on new, higher-capacity systems.

NAS is a hot market, with existing players such as Quantum, Maxtor and Western Digital's Connex at the low end and six-figure systems from Network Appliance and EMC at the high end. It is into this market that Network Engines is introducing its storage appliance.

The company's Voyager line uses higher-performance SCSI hard disks and RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) technology to keep data available even if one hard disk crashes. The disks and cooling fans also can be replaced without having to shut the systems down, the company said.

Meanwhile, API NetWorks is advancing its 1U Alpha servers, a plan it announced in May.

Compaq's Alpha chip, though lauded for its high performance, has never caught on as well as Intel's mainstream chips, but it's particularly good for number-crunching jobs and is favored by scientists.

API expects to sell the servers chiefly to specialists who build Linux-based "Beowulf" computers, a do-it-yourself method for making supercomputers on the cheap. The dual-processor models enable more processing power to be crammed into limited floor space, and a new feature allows them to boot up without a hard disk, making it easier to set up the systems, said marketing manager Guy Ludden.

The new systems benefit from doubled communications speed between the chip and high-speed cache memory, said Tom Morris, senior manager of technical marketing.

API changed its name partly to reflect the fact that it sells servers and motherboards--the circuit boards that house the CPU and a host of other essential chips--but the company also is moving ahead with its original business of selling Alpha chips made by Samsung to Compaq and other customers. API on Monday released higher-speed 833-MHz chips, faster than the previous top speed of 750 MHz, Ludden said.