Big or Small? The Future of Server Architectures

Arthur Cole

Will the data center of the future call for a greater number of smaller servers, or is it about to make a u-turn back to the days of the big mainframe? Or will it be something else entirely?

The question is prompted by Intel's recent proposal of the "microserver." According to the vision laid out by Sean Maloney at the Intel Developer Forum, the future belongs to smaller, cheaper and more energy-efficient servers powered by the company's Xeon 3400 processors. The plan is for a 45-watt version later this year and then a 30-watt device in early 2010.

As most datacenters have already adopted distributed architectures over centralized mainframes, the goal now is to allow enterprises to rapidly scale up their server capabilities without breaking their power envelopes. A key component in the strategy, naturally, is high-speed networking to ensure data can find its way in and out of the labyrinth of servers, and the multiple VMs within those servers, and then out across the data center proper and onto the cloud.

A glimpse of this future can be seen in the new SGI CloudRack X2, the new 14U cluster representing a combination of former SGI software and Rackable Systems' previous CloudRack device. The machine provides 216 x64 cores, along with a pair of switches and three power supplies.

Of course, SGI would have to contend with Dell, which already has a series of low-cost 1U servers based on the 3400 series. At less than $800, the PowerEdge R210 is only a one-socket model, but it provides an Intel 4320 chipset, a PCIe x16 slot and can accommodate up to 2 TB of SATA storage. It can be configured with 2.5-inch drives or SSDs.

Not everyone is convinced that the future will be smaller, however. Research and Markets just put out a study arguing that as the cloud goes mainstream, small distributed architectures will be less effective. The theory is that, with computing power, performance, capacity and just about everything else that is in limited supply suddenly infinitely scalable in the cloud, reliability will take center stage. And on that score, only mainframes offer the needed memory, cache and reallocation to keep things humming.

The idea of low-cost server technology will certainly be welcomed by small businesses, at least until the comfort level of the cloud increases to the point where critical data can entrusted to it. The question is whether major organizations will find it worthwhile. Low power on an individual machine is well and good, but if you increase server density on the shop floor, you may well end up with even more energy consumption per square foot with only a marginal increase in processing power.

However, the folks at Intel aren't stupid. It would be surprising if they put significant time, energy and money into a project like this without crunching the numbers first.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 24, 2009 12:36 PM Elisabeth Stahl Elisabeth Stahl  says:

The question is - is it big or small? Centralized or distributed? A large system or a large cluster of cores?

I believe the answer really ends up being "Big AND Small." One size doesn't fit all, when it comes to server architectures. The best fit depends on the workload and which type of system is optimized for that particular workload.  It's about systems optimized for specific tasks.  If attributes such as reliability and availability are integral to your workload as mentioned above, then the mainframe would most likely be your best fit; with consolidation and virtualization, it might be the best fit for energy efficiency too.

Elisabeth Stahl

IBM Systems Performance

Sep 25, 2009 8:02 AM Saleem Awan Saleem Awan  says:

I feel Small Servers are going to grow in near future. Small servers provide best solution for small business and are more cheaper than mainframe servers.

Increasing access to broadband and other high speed and cost Internet solutions will enable small business to manage their own small servers at their own locations instead of looking for any service provider which ultimately encourage many business to go online with their own small servers.


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