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January 22, 2009

Verari Systems: from Clusters to Containers

by John West

Verari started life building Beowulf clusters. From the beginning the company, then called RackSaver, focused on engineering differentiation into the support systems that turn a collection of nodes into a coherent system. RackSaver invested a great deal of engineering effort into cooling, power distribution, and the layout of components in a rack to ensure that they could deliver more compute capability in less space. These infrastructure investments put RackSaver ahead of the pack in those days and it was one of the only companies to buy from if, for example, you wanted two AMD Athlons in 1U of space in 2001. The company, operating as Verari Systems, put systems on the TOP500 starting that next year. This was at a time when AMD had debuted on the list for the first time only a year earlier, and RackSaver was one of AMD’s partners as it elbowed to make room for itself in what was still a crowded list of processor families on the TOP500.

By 2003, the list of vendors on the TOP500 had reached 23, growing from 10 just three years earlier, and the new “cluster” space was getting pretty crowded. RackSaver started looking for a new strategy, and by 2004 was on a new path that focused away from clusters to blade server systems for utility computing, adding businesses to its target customer base along with scientific computing. The company acquired MPI Software Technology in April of that year, adding MST’s experience building software for blade servers to its in-house capabilities. At the time, MST’s software was being used on the number four and number eight supercomputers in the world, and brought key large-scale systems software experience into the company. As CEO and co-founder David Driggers said at the time, “Before we had to leverage software with partners to offer a complete commercial package, now we can offer the whole package to customers.” The company also reorganized under the Verari Systems brand, and added a former Sun sales executive to its board to build out new sales channels to support its blades for business concept.

Based in San Diego and still privately held, Verari has an estimated 280 employees with sales of over $100 million in 2008 showing a growth of over 20 percent from 2007. That makes it a small company, especially relative to its main competitors in the blade business space, IBM and HP. How do they compete? Dan Gatti explains that differentiation is the key, “Our goal is to be the first to bring new technologies into the market, well before our competitors.” For Verari this means nursing key partnerships with AMD and Intel to make sure it’s ready to launch new blade products the day those companies announce new chips. Verari also holds patents on several infrastructure technologies, including its vertical cooling technology, which allows systems to be packed very densely and still operate efficiently.

In fact this technology, along with Verari’s power distribution and blade packing technologies have helped turned the company’s containerized computing platform into a key line of business and a strategic focus for the future. Verari’s FOREST Container has some very high profile deployments, including all three containers that Microsoft uses as part of its Virtual Earth server and storage farm. A single 40′ container can hold more than 2,000 servers, or up to 13 PB, making it a useful option for those who need to add capacity and cannot wait (or afford) to build more machine room space.

The company claims that the use of Vertical Cooling Technology in its FOREST containers saves up to 50 percent of the traditional cooling power requirements, and this ties in with a green thrust for the company. The most recent activity on this front is Verari’s Energy Credit Incentive Program for customers of the company’s BladeRack 2 X-Series or FOREST containers. Verari helps its customers calculate future energy savings using standard metrics and then handles the application process with the local utilities. Some utilities offer customers as much as $500,000 in energy cost rebates for its largest customers.

While total numbers are still small — Verari’s target is to ship 15 to 20 containers in 2009, triple the number sold in 2008 — they are significant compared to adoption rates divined from the other container vendors who are reluctant to talk numbers. Verari is expecting the financial markets to drive this growth in 2009, as space-constrained Wall Street firms struggling with the need to do more with less and meet compliance requirements for data preservation set up compute and storage containers nearby places like New Jersey. Gatti describes the ongoing need for compute as an “IT arms race” that financial companies simply cannot afford to lose, even in tough economic times, and this is consistent with the results of a recent survey of HPC spending plans in financial companies.

Over recent years the company has grown a significant market in storage business targeted for what it calls grid computing and scale out Web 2.0 companies, shipping over 50 PB of its storage solutions in 2008. Its blade storage hardware is complemented by Verari’s DataValet solution, an integrated hardware and software environment that lets customers move to policy-driven storage management in a system that self-configures and self-heals in the event of faults.

According to Gatti, Verari has a significant presence in many markets, including financial services, Internet service providers (including customers such as Microsoft and Akamai), oil and gas exploration companies, and entertainment (including Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and Sony Pictures Imageworks). Customer applications include traditional scientific computing from the oil and gas industries, but also loosely coupled workloads such as frame rendering and financial options analysis. The bulk of the servers shipped are based on one of the Linux distros, but Kevin McGrath points out that there is a growing demand for Windows HPC Server 2008. McGrath says that, in Verari’s customer base, the HPC Server 2008 demand is being fueled by improvements in SQL Server that increase the degree to which tasks can be automatically parallelized.

Today Verari describes itself as being in the “high performance business” market, an evolution of its scientific computing heritage, and points to storage and containerized compute solutions as key pieces of its strategy going forward. Verari has an impressive legacy of adapting in the face of changing market pressures and customer demands, and it will be interesting to watch the company continue to grow.