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Transmeta-based servers boast power-saving chips

Several companies plan to release Web servers with Transmeta's energy-saving Crusoe chips, rather than ones with chips from Intel or Sun.

The cost of real estate and electricity are two of the major problems of doing business in Silicon Valley--a situation that several companies coming out with Transmeta-based servers hope to exploit.

RLX Technologies, and two other server start-ups, FiberCycle and Amphus, will release Web servers in the near future that contain Crusoe processors from Transmeta, among other architectural enhancements, rather than chips from Intel or Sun Microsystems.

Originally targeted at the notebook market, the Crusoe chip has emerged as a contender in the Web server area, these companies assert, because it consumes less power than competing processors. By requiring less power, servers containing the chip emit less heat, consume less energy and can be squeezed into smaller cases.

"It consumes one-fourth of the power," said Rodney McInnis, director of product marketing at Ottawa, Canada-based, which will release its first Crusoe-based server in about three weeks. "You can run four of ours on the same amount of energy that it takes to run one of theirs."

And as application service providers and e-commerce sites find themselves forced to install banks containing hundreds of servers, lower power consumption can translate into huge advantages. Astronomical utility costs, independent generators, super-cooled operation rooms, and an insatiable need for more floor space are all part of life for hosting companies. If the cooling systems break down, servers can actually melt, prompting angry calls from clients.

Major hosting companies already are conducting trials with Crusoe systems, said executives at RLX and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta.

"There is a domino effect on the support infrastructure," said Chris Hipp, chief technology officer at The Woodlands, Texas-based RLX. "These are things that cost a lot more than your server hardware...Heat is the primary killer of electronic hardware."

Although it is unclear how well these servers will do in the open market, using Crusoe chips in this market appears to be a logical move, said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst of The Linley Group. Web servers are typically required to do relatively repetitive tasks, which often do not require the most ornate chips from Intel or Sun.

Besides that, space is king.

"If you can get rid of the heatsink," Gwennap said, referring to a cooling component, "you can double the number of processors."

Is size the answer?
RLX, founded by former executives from Compaq Computer, is essentially trying to produce smaller servers that consume less power. Although that goal would be contradictory under current server architectures, RLX believes the design of its upcoming servers will reverse the trend.

Adopting Crusoe processors, Hipp added, is not the only enhancement. RLX's servers also conserve on cable. A rack of the company's servers will require only about one-twelfth the amount of networking cable.

The servers also come in a different type of case. Current Web servers come in individual cases the size of pizza boxes that slide into racks. By contrast, RLX's server, code-named Razor, will essentially be naked circuit boards, or blades, that slide into a case that takes up less room than racks.

This type of server design is common in the telecommunications industry. Many of RLX's engineers, Hipp pointed out, come from networking company Nortel Networks.

The Razor also weighs less than comparable servers. A complete stack of Razor blades provides as much computing power as 15,000 pounds of servers from VA Linux Systems, Hipp asserts.

"If you can increase server density, you can increase efficiency," he said.

RLX will come out with its first servers during the first half of the year.

Gartner analyst Jeffrey Hewitt says Transmeta has targeted a market niche with real growth potential, but great technology by itself will not enable Transmeta to prosper.

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FiberCycle, a server start-up headed by Spiro Koulouros, will come out with its products sometime this year, a spokeswoman said, declining further comment.

By contrast, shows no preannouncement elusiveness. The Netwinder 3100 will be its first Transmeta-based server. The box will cost approximately $1,795 and come with a 5400 Crusoe processor, 128MB of memory, and a 10GB hard drive.

The current Netwinder comes with a StrongArm processor. Although the StrongArm is often held up as an example of a low-power chip, the Crusoe version is faster.

Unlike competitors' products, however, Transmeta-based servers will not be capable of multiprocessing. Transmeta is not planning to come out with a chipset that will allow for multiprocessor boxes, said Marc Adams, who runs Transmeta's non-notebook sales division. But because these servers require fewer fans and cooling components, he said, a single server case will be capable of containing two separate single-processor servers.