Willy Wonka and the Dell factory

Dell's Jimmy Pike mixes components in new ways to build efficient servers for the cloud

If Dell's cloud server lab is a candy shop for geeks, littered with components and exotic system designs, then Jimmy Pike is the Willy Wonka of servers.

Pike, a jolly man with grey hair and seemingly boundless energy, is in charge of server design at Dell's Data Center Solutions division, which builds custom servers to meet the high-density and low-power needs of online giants like Microsoft and Facebook, as well as other "hyperscale" computing customers.

He works in a small lab in Building 2 of Dell's Parmer campus in Round Rock, Texas. Last week he gave a rare tour of his lab to a reporter, showing off some one-of-a-kind designs that Dell built for individual customers, and two other systems that will be released soon to a wider market under Dell's new PowerEdge C brand.

Like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, Dell was late to the cloud server game. Verari and Rackable Systems were first to show there was a market for dense, low-power servers that strip out nonessential components and software to suit the unique needs of cloud computing providers. Dell and its rivals have since jumped on board.

Desks in the DCS lab are covered with motherboards and server chassis, rackmount servers are stacked like pizza boxes on the floor, and at the back are racks of servers containing some of the group's output, including a few experiments whose results never saw the light of day.

Like Willy Wonka in the book by Roald Dahl, Pike's job is to combine ingredients in new and sometimes radical ways. Instead of chocolate and blueberries, his ingredients are chips, fans and motherboards. "Sometimes we bend metal and put boards together with duct tape," he said.

Pike had several systems laid out and ready to show, but changed his mind at the last minute and darted off to a rack at the back of the room. Buried behind a tangle of cables was a server designed for a free webmail company.

In it were crammed 23 3.5-inch disk drives, 11 in the front and 12 in the back, for an impressive 46TB of storage in a 2U server. There was no redundant power supply; the client figured a free e-mail service can afford a few outages in return for saving a few watts of power. Multiplied across thousands of servers, the savings add up. "This is dirt-cheap storage," said Pike.

Back at the workbench he pried the lid off a 2U server built for the French Web hosting company Dedibox. It contained 12 mini-server boards, each with a 1.6GHz Nano processor from Via Technologies. The chips are known for their low power use, and the whole server consumes just 340 watts, Pike said, not much more than a powerful PC.

The Via chip was also picked because it can run a 64-bit OS (the server is certified for four flavors of Linux) and a hypervisor for virtualization -- things Intel's low-power Atom processor can't do. Dedibox bought "multiple tens of thousands" of the servers, according to Drew Schulke, senior marketing manager for the DCS group.

Pike is designing more experimental systems but they are hidden behind locked doors. Asked if he's building servers with individual batteries inside for backup power, instead of the big Uninterruptible Power Supplies normally found in data centers, he didn't answer but gave a telling smile.

It's a radical change that Google, which designs its own servers, has already made. UPS systems, however reliable, can fail. They are also expensive, and data centers have to forecast how much capacity they'll need when they install one. Putting a battery in each server allows backup power to be matched precisely with demand. "You don't have to worry about right-sizing" the UPS, Schulke said. Pike said he thinks servers can be "a few percent more efficient" with on-board batteries.

The DCS group doesn't show its most exotic designs because it has nothing to gain by doing so, according to Forrest Norrod, who used to run the group and is now general manager for Dell's server business. They are aimed at such a small group of very large customers that there is no point in advertising them, he said; doing so would only show its hand to HP and IBM, who are likely experimenting with similar systems.

"We ship some products where you could ask where does the server stop and where does the data center begin," Norrod said. "We've got deployments where you're talking about thousands of servers and six fans, and where the power systems don't look anything like you would see in a normal data center."

Servers became "boring" for a while, Pike said, but the requirements of cloud computing have made his job interesting again. "I've been doing this for 30 years and I'm having more fun than I've ever had," he said.

The DCS group was formed three years ago and is one of the more successful parts of Dell's business. The company won't break out its revenue, but it likes to boast that if DCS were spun off as a standalone company, it would rank alongside IBM in the U.S. for the number of servers sold in any given quarter.

Schulke said DCS has sold more than 350,000 servers to date. It is currently selling custom designs to about two dozen customers, and 90 percent of the servers are "fully racked" -- or ready for use -- when they go out the door.

Dell is now trying to transfer some of the division's success to its mainstream server business. Earlier this year it took three of the custom designs and began selling them as the PowerEdge C series to a second tier of slightly smaller customers -- those who order systems by the thousands, rather than the tens of thousands.

This summer it will release a new C series model, the 5120. It's a Web server -- for the presentation layer, Pike said -- though its components mean it is "starting to look more like a general-purpose server." It crams eight server boards into a 3U design, with a choice of Intel's Lynnfield quad-core server processor or its Clarkdale dual-core desktop processor, both with the Foxhollow chipset. Four large fans cool the boards, and the box supports up to 4TB of storage and 16GB RAM.

The server can be serviced almost entirely from the front, where the cold aisle would be in a data center. Customers are running their facilities warmer, and temperatures in some hot aisles are starting to get uncomfortable. "You don't want to go work there unless you really need to," Schulke said.

Another server coming soon to the C series uses graphics processors and will be aimed at HPC users such as oil and gas companies. Called the 410x, it contains 16 miniature server boards that slide in vertically at each end of the chassis, 10 at the front and six at the back, each with an Nvidia GPU.

Dell hopes to add more of the custom cloud servers to its C series family, but persuading customers to experiment with nontraditional designs is a challenge. "There's an evolution of acceptance of things that aren't standard, things that gain their efficiency by changing form factors dramatically," Norrod said.

The servers it has added to the PowerEdge C series so far are "the most traditional DCS boxes we've got," he said.

"The DCS systems we ship in volume now are quite a bit stranger than that. You're going to see us take the whole market on that journey with us, but it takes time."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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