Dell plans 2002 launch of blade-based servers

Dell Computer Corp. Wednesday became the latest major computer hardware vendor to announce a shift in its server strategy towards an architecture built around server blades.

The company plans to begin offering hardware built around the architecture sometime in mid-2002, a company executive said here at a press event. Dell will offer both server blades, ultra-dense servers that consume low amounts of power, and bricks, larger size rack-mounted devices that offer extra storage, memory and processing power.

A current server rack can accommodate up to 42 servers, said Randy Groves, vice president of high volume system engineering at Dell, although expanding beyond this is proving difficult because of a combination of problems: The power needed to run the servers, the cooling system needed to keep them from overheating, and physical space limitations inside each cabinet.

When Dell releases its first hardware based on the new architecture in 2002, Groves estimated the machines will be able to feature up to 84 blades-- double the current number of servers. Eventually, Dell thinks it could accommodate up to 280 individual servers in a rack. The company could also put enough bricks into one rack to support up to 36T-bytes of storage.

The blade setup will also allow Dell to reduce the number of power cords needed to run a large rack-mounted server by putting a number of plugs on a common chassis and common backplane.

The first blade-based systems from Dell will run on Intel Corp.'s IA-32 chip architecture and will support commonly used networking technologies like Fibre Channel. In the later part of 2002, Dell plans to launch systems based on Intel's second generation 64-bit processor named McKinley. At that time, the vendor will also integrate high-speed Ethernet and Infiniband networking technology into the boxes.

A typical implementation might include a tier one appliance server consisting of nothing but server blades, a tier two application server made up of a mixture of blades and bricks and a tier three database server built from nothing but bricks, Groves said.

In the last few weeks, blades have been seized upon by a number of computer vendors as the next generation architecture for computer servers.

Two of Dell's largest competitors, Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM Corp., have both already announced their first moves in the field. Compaq said it is teaming with Intel Corp. to develop ultra- dense servers while IBM signed a reseller agreement with Texas-based RLX Technologies Inc. "A lot of folks have been talking about a variety of different blade strategies," Groves said. "But most of them are startups focused on nichey front-end services."

Dell looks to leverage its direct sales model in the blade and brick space by giving customers a number of options while still keeping its inventory overhead low. The company claims the blade and brick combination will give customers more flexibility when picking their hardware needs, helping Dell make its push toward the large, corporate space.

Up to this point, Dell has gained steady ground in the server market mostly by selling cheap, smaller systems. With the arrival of McKinley next year, however, the vendor claims it will have the processing firepower and hardware architecture necessary to compete against other high-end systems, according to Groves.

Dell's President and Chief Operating Officer James Vanderslice remained confident of his company's ability to pull more server market share even in a tough economic climate.

"We gained more market share last quarter than we did in the previous six," he said, during Wednesday's event.

Dell announced it would layoff upto 4,000 people earlier this month, however, Vanderslice claims his company's direct sales model will help Dell beat out the competition in tough times. He said that Dell's tight watch on its inventory levels will help the company take advantage of low component costs and avoid order backlogs faced by its competitors.

"They have sixty days of inventory; we have three," he said.

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