With processing power increasing, server prices going down, and vendors enhancing the way users manage and allocate system resources, the idea of using groups of servers, rather than one big server becomes increasingly attractive.Precision Response, which provides customer-care services for large companies, collects and manages information on millions of its clients' customers. The company has used Sun's high-end Enterprise 10000 servers to handle the mountains of data, but by July those big boxes will be taken out.In their place, Precision is stringing together four, four-processor Dell PowerEdge 6650 servers running Oracle's 9i database software with Real Application Clusters (RAC).It's a move that systems vendors are expecting to see more corporate customers make. Clusters are nothing new, but in the past they've typically consisted of hundreds - sometimes thousands - of nodes linked together for heavy-duty number crunching in research labs. Today, however, vendors are offering Intel-based servers running Linux that are optimized for cluster-aware software such as databases in data centers.With processing power increasing, server prices going down, and vendors enhancing the way users manage and allocate system resources, the idea of using groups of servers, rather than one big server becomes increasingly attractive, experts say."Once you get to the point that you can make moving applications around and resizing system resources as easy on multiple systems as it is on big systems, the reason to consolidate on that big system pretty much goes away," says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.For Precision, it meant the company could get more out of its infrastructure and it expects to save an estimated $18,000 per month in maintenance costs, says Bill Hicks, senior vice president of technology and CIO at the Miami company.While the Sun Enterprise 10000 costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, Dell's PowerEdge 6650 boxes start around $10,000."The model in previous years was every time a new [customer] came in we had to buy a new box, which obviously gets expensive. I'd have 10, 20, 40% capacity available on my boxes, but I couldn't take advantage of it because they were all individual units," he says. "The thing we saw in clustering was the ability to add on additional units as we grow."The failover features of clustering also provides increased reliability and lets Hicks' staff do maintenance work immediately."In the past, we had to do most of our maintenance on Sunday night at three in the morning because we impact the client environment," he says. "Now we can do it when the sun is out."Small packagesServer clustering is growing in data centers, thanks to dropping costs and easier management. Here's a look at what vendors are offering when it comes to clustering:\u2022Dell in April introduced server\/storage clusters optimized for Oracle 9i Database with Real Application Clusters [RAC]. Pricing starts at $18,000.\u2022HP offers preconfigured Linux and Windows clusters for the Oracle RAC environment, and preconfigured high performance computing clusters on Proliant and Itanium platforms.\u2022IBM last week announced prepackaged blade superclusters that are preconfigured and tested in the factory.\u2022Sun earlier this month pledged commitment to low-cost computing and said that its new x86 servers would be optimized for clustering with Oracle9i RAC.While there is a trend toward clustering standard Intel servers, analysts say it's still early, and management issues are still being ironed out. Another issue is the ability of software to run across multiple servers. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has long pushed the idea of saving money by running his company's database software on distributed boxes. In April, Ellison shared a stage with Dell CEO Michael Dell to tout their expanded partnership to sell clustered server systems. Earlier this month, Ellison made the same pitch with Sun CEO Scott McNealy.HP, meanwhile, has offered Unix-based clustering based on Compaq's Tru64 technology. It also offers clustering capabilities for its standard ProLiant servers.IBM sells xSeries clusters designed to run Oracle 9i RAC, Lotus Domino and DB2. Last week, Big Blue announced prepackaged Linux blade clusters, which use its cluster technology."They've essentially commoditized high-performance computing," says Charles King, research director at the Sageza Group. "It's a really small footprint, it's really powerful . . . and all the customer has to do is uncrate the thing, plug it in and they're ready to roll."The Cluster 1350 with IBM eServer BladeCenter will be available June 6. Pricing was not released.