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NEC, Stratus upgrade Intel servers

The two companies, which share technology for the servers, argue that their products are a cheaper and better alternative to "clusters."

Stratus Technologies and NEC released new lower-end but higher-reliability Intel servers Monday that are able to withstand many hardware faults.

The two companies, which share technology for the servers, argue that their products are a cheaper and better alternative to "clusters," in which one server takes over for another. The NEC and Stratus machines use two or three processors running in lock step to protect against failures in one processor and incorporate more rigorously tested operating system software components.

The new systems are 7-inch-thick rack-mountable models with processor and input-output modules that slide into the chassis. They are comparable in computing power to two-processor servers, though twice as many processors are actually used because of the redundant design.

The companies' message that the servers are a good alternative to clusters has some merit, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata. "You use the NEC-Stratus boxes where you need high availability but you can't afford the complexity that clustering usually brings," he said.

On the other hand, clusters handle some severe failures better. "If the whole system goes bonko or the operating system gets corrupted or an adapter goes haywire...it's good to be able to switch to a completely different box and start the application up afresh," Eunice said.

Stratus expects customers for its ftServer 3300 will be drawn to models costing $25,000 to $29,000. NEC says its Express5800/320Lb systems will cost less than $35,000, including plenty of memory and hard drive capacity.

The machines use Intel's 2.5GHz Xeon processors, a big step up from the Pentium III chips used in previous models. The new systems support as much as 3GB of memory instead of just 2GB, have built-in 1-gigabit-per-second Ethernet networking, and faster input-output systems.

Both companies plan to release a four-processor design midyear. The model will have the same processor modules that slide into the chassis, but will be 10.5 inches thick.

NEC is an investor in Stratus. NEC licensed Stratus' fault-tolerant technology and builds the special-purpose chips that make the lock-step processing possible, said Mike Mitsch, senior director of marketing for NEC Solutions America.

Stratus aims its products at specific markets, such as 911 emergency call centers, whereas NEC has a broader focus and includes Linux support. Stratus' models have "phone home" support, in which the server contacts Stratus if something goes wrong and a Stratus technician can try to fix the problems remotely.

Linux support for the new NEC system will arrive toward the end of the year, Mitsch said. Stratus currently doesn't offer Linux support because most of its customers use Microsoft's Windows, said Denny Lane, vice president of marketing.

NEC also plans to use Itanium processors in future designs. "Our goal is, we'll roll our IA-64 (Itanium) technology into the fault-tolerant space as well," Mitsch said.

Stratus' Lane was more reserved. "We don't see any compelling need to do it. We'll be ready when the market is ready. If the market evolves, we'll be there," he said.