HP designs new server for 'extreme' scale-out computing

The ProLiant SL servers use a "skinless" design to optimize cooling and reduce shipping costs

Hewlett-Packard has introduced a new line of x86 servers for companies that operate massive computing facilities, where shaving a few dollars off the energy or shipping costs for each system can add up to significant savings.

HP's ProLiant SL servers are aimed at Web companies like Yahoo and Facebook, and also at enterprises that use giant server farms for tasks like modelling financial data or designing aircraft, HP said on Tuesday. The first three SL models, based on Intel's Xeon 5500 Nehalem|processors, are due to ship next month.

They are part of a wider effort by HP to get more business from companies that operate large data centers. On Tuesday HP also grouped its products and services for that area under a new brand, the Extreme Scale-Out portfolio, and said it will resell wireless sensor equipment from SynapSense for data center monitoring.

The new ProLiant servers have what HP calls a "skinless" design that does away with much of the exterior metal casing, making them look a bit like blade servers. The server boards have a new layout to optimize cooling, allowing HP to use four large fans at the back of each rack instead of one for each server, and to run the fans at lower speeds.

The servers also omit features that HP says often aren't required by large Internet companies, such as redundant power supplies and advanced management software. "In many cases these companies own the software stack themselves and have the high-availability and management features they need, so they don't need it in the underlying hardware," said Christine Martino, general manager of HP's Scalable Computing and Infrastructure group.

The result, according to HP, is a server that consumes 28 percent less power and weighs almost a third less than a "standard" rackmount server. That could mean significant savings in shipping and energy costs for companies that purchase servers by the thousands, Martino said.

HP called the SL systems "the most significant form factor innovation since blade servers," although it is not the first vendor to design new servers for scale-out computing. IBM, Rackable Systems (now SGI) and Verari Systems all sell specialized systems for Web-scale data centers.

IBM's iDataPlex, introduced last year, has an unusual design to optimize cooling that occupies the space of two server racks. HP, by contrast, stayed closer to a standard rack-mount server design, said Forrester analyst James Staten. That will appeal to some customers, he said.

"The majority of the people who buy these systems buy them by the thousand, so they just want consistency across the racks without anything proprietary," he said.

HP introduced three ProLiant SL models, all 2u deep, but it emphasized that the configurations are flexible, and HP will even work with large customers to design specific server boards, said Steve Cumings, an HP marketing director.

The SL160z is for memory- and I/O-intensive applications and comes with up to 128GB of DDR3 memory. The SL170z is a storage-centric system that can hold six 3.5-inch drives. And the SL2x170z, for maximum compute density, can hold up to four quad-core processors, for a total of 672 processor cores in a 42u rack.

The SL line is supposed to complement rather than replace HP's other high-density systems, the ProLiant 2x220c blades and the StorageWorks 9100. HP wants to be a "holistic" provider of both products and services for running large data centers, Martino said.

Instead of 24x7 support, companies that operate these large compute farms would rather have a weekly on-site maintenance visit to swap out any failed hardware, Martino said, so HP is now offering that as an option.

HP will sell the SynapSense sensor equipment branded as the HP Environmental Edge. It monitors variables such as temperature and humidity in a data center to help companies identify inefficiencies, such as areas where hot and cold air are mixing.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service

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