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Willy Wonka and the Dell factory

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

By , IDG News Service
June 10, 2010 06:12 PM ET

IDG News Service - 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.

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