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April 28, 2008

Supplying Hardware for the Hyper-Scale War

Derrick Harris

You can try to hide from cloud computing, but let’s be honest: As the ecosystem continues to define itself, there’s just far too much going on for cloud computing to fly under the radar. Currently, we are seeing the base of that ecosystem solidify, as big-time vendors are beginning to emerge as the “arms dealers” supplying the hardware that will power these seemingly unstoppable clouds.

It should come as no surprise that IBM, who with its Blue Cloud line is leading the cloud charge in large part, also was the first to make a big announcement of a line of servers directly targeting cloud computing. With its new iDataPlex line, IBM is allowing owners of massive distributed datacenters to fit more servers in their racks while saving significantly on the power and cooling fronts. When combined with IBM’s Tivoli-based Blue Cloud software, customers are ready to be serious players in this emerging market.

But IBM isn’t alone. In fact, I spoke last week with Dell, who has its own plans to dominate hyper-scale datacenter landscapes worldwide. Formed in March 2007, Dell’s Data Center Solutions (DCS) division started as a way to address the specialized needs of the company’s Internet search customers (three of the top five in the United States), and now serves what it calls the hyper-scale market — cloud computing/Web 2.0 service providers and users deploying 5,000-plus-node HPC clusters. The DCS business actually is quite simple, says Todd Brannon, market development manager for DCS, in that the division does “very intimate” consulting with its customers and then integrates the resultant designed-to-order equipment into their environments.

And DCS isn’t hurting for either ambition or business. “We’re absolutely determined to be the best, kind of honest arms dealer for folks who are trying to build these hyper-scale environments,” said Brannon. “So far, we’re really [experiencing] a lot of success.”

Like IBM, the servers Dell’s DCS supplies its cloud customers are optimized to fit the demands of the market. In fact, Dell’s solutions are designed to meet the specific demands of each customer. Because of the varying natures of their applications, Brannon says every customer has its own ideals in terms of power supply, fans, and CPU:RAM:disk capacity ratios, and they don’t want to pay a feature tax for components they’re not going to use. Dell’s standard PowerEdge servers, for example, are often far overprovisioned for what Web 2.0 customers need. All operating in x86 hyper-scale environments, Brannon says DCS’s customers simply want low memory costs for big footprints and high-performance, low-power processors.

With Dell’s “COTS-plus” model, he says, customers can be assured they’re getting the best components “out of the entire universe of available parts,” as well as Dell’s expertise in power and thermal control and overall systems engineering. “We could shave 30-40 percent off the power profile in a single system,” he said. The result, Brannon claims, is a shorter implementation time due to less validations and overall development; higher density, if needed; and millions of dollars in OPEX savings if you’re deploying tens of thousands machines and running them for a few years — not an uncommon occurrence among major Web sites and services.

Although the real magic behind cloud computing is in the software, Brannon says hardware is critical for business offering computing as a service, or simply those needing to power their highly trafficked portals or social networking sites, because it’s what drives a good portion of their costs. “For customers in this space, the datacenter is really their factory,” he analogized. “If you think about Google, they’ve got somewhere around the order of 300,000-400,000 systems in production and datacenters all over the place, and that’s what drives a good chunk of their OPEX, at least if you looked at their search P&L.”

Even smaller Web presences like MySpace (as well as HPC customers in industries like financial services and oil & gas), he said, have a significant portion of their overhead related to the datacenter. “To the degree they can shave power consumption out, they can really impact their bottom line quite directly,” he said.

On the software side, Dell feels it just as well positioned as all-in-one competitors like IBM. This confidence comes in large part from Dell’s stable of technology partners, which includes PAN Manager purveyor Egenera. “It’s kind of early days, in a lot of ways in cloud [computing],” Brannon says. “IBM has Blue Cloud out there, but if you took what we have with Egenera, VMware, and Altiris and put them together, it’s the same type of capability in terms of being able to offer a customer all the components they need to put together their own compute cloud for internal use.” Most of the Internet giants pushing cloud-based services to the masses utilize their own homegrown software, he noted.

As its customers moved into the hyper-scale world, DCS realized it also could save them money by coming up with some different service models. As opposed to the traditional model, where technicians are on-call and responding to server problems in near real-time, the massive scale of cloud environments allows for a more laidback attitude. Brannon says DCS generally puts a “parts cage” in customers’ facilities so their systems administrators can make repairs, and Dell sends a technician out once a week on a “milk run,” or scheduled on-site service, just to make sure everything is running smoothly.

DCS also offers capacity on-demand services to end-users who need more machines and don’t have anywhere to put them, but Brannon assured me Dell hasn’t taken the plunge into becoming a public cloud service provider. We’re watching the space, he said, but the current model is “if they come, we will build it.”

Overall, Brannon says Dell sees serious potential in cloud computing and the subsequent need for hyper-scale infrastructures — citing as evidence a statistic claiming 500,000 people worldwide get on the Internet for the first time every day — but although it has done some deep-thinking exercises on the future of computing, the company isn’t ready to drastically alter its business model just yet. “Dell gets it,” he said. “We understand that cloud computing is a paradigm that is going to continue to grow and is going to continue to make more and more sense as [data] transport gets cheaper and as compute power becomes easier to control in a virtualized environment. … [I]t definitely opens up a lot of questions for us, but for right now we’re really focused on being the best infrastructure provider we can.”

Dell has launched a blog called “In the Clouds: Condensing Ideas on the Future of Cloud Computing” in order put its thoughts out in the open and stimulate discussion among cloud stakeholders.

Two down, two to go, right? With IBM and Dell officially coming out as cloud arms dealers, Sun Microsystems and HP can’t be far behind. The conventional wisdom, actually, is that Sun’s family of technologies, from Solaris to SPARC, is ideal for hyper-scale environments, so, especially given Sun’s track record with being on the cutting-edge in terms Internet technologies, I’m somewhat surprised we haven’t seen them directly attack this market yet. Obviously, there are (and will continue to be) smaller hardware vendors out in the market peddling their wares as the most advanced weapons available, but the consensus seems to be that it will be the stalwarts who really benefit from the cloud computing arms race. In the (albeit biased) opinion of Dell’s Brannon, the tier one providers can always catch up technologically, and their advantages in terms of supply chains and global footprints likely will be too much for smaller players to overcome.

Of course, the cloud ecosystem is diverse, and while companies like Dell and IBM are providing the base hardware, there is a whole slew of very specific service providers emerging, as well. In another cloud-based feature, Dennis Barker looks at some of the companies whose business models are to a great degree anchored in Amazon Web Services, particularly EC2. From RightScale to Enomaly to Elastra, the startup scene is laden with companies trying to both simplify your EC2 experience and let you take full advantage of its high-performance, scale-on-demand capabilities.

Elsewhere in this week’s issue, be sure to check out the following noteworthy items: “3Tera Intros Cloud Computing without Compromise”; “Sun Helps ISVs Do SaaS with ‘Solaris On Demand’”; “Terracotta Licenses Hyperic IT Management Technology”; “Kapow Rolls Out On-Demand Mashup, Web Harvesting”; “Government Technologists Concerned with Slow SOA Adoption”; “StrikeIron Introduces IronCloud”; and “RightScale Raises $4.5M to Advance Cloud Development Platform.”


Comments about GRIDtoday are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Derrick Harris, at