Volume 6, Number 25 -- June 24, 2008

Rackable Systems Pushes the Server Density Envelope with New Gear

Published: June 24, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Boutique data center server maker Rackable Systems is once again cranking up the density of its server designs and this week is launching a new series of blade and rack servers and related storage that can provide up to twice the density of its current machines without sacrificing processor performance or storage capacity on the blades.

There are three new servers and a new enclosure for blade modules being announced by Rackable this week. Rackable was the first server vendor to create custom server designs that were half as deep as standard Extended ATX motherboard designs, which are what rack-based servers have been created using for the past decade or so. By designing half-deep boards, Rackable has been able to put the boards back to back in a standard server chassis, thereby doubling the density it can offer compared to other rack-based server makers. With the new line of machines announced this week, Rackable is shrinking the width of a server by half, so it can now put two servers in the same space as prior Rackable machines (hence their code-name, "Gemini") and can put four servers in the same space as a standard 2U server. Rackable is not using the "Atoka" boards designed by Intel and its server and motherboard partners, which put two skinny motherboards

The XE2004 is a half-depth rack server that measures 3.5 inches tall by 15.5 inches deep that actually puts two Xeon-based servers in the same form factor where one server used to be. According to Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at Rackable, these motherboards are built by a number of different players, including Quanta, Tyan, ASUS, and Flextronics, and that Rackable has enough server sales volume that it can do custom boards and still make money. The XE2004 server is based on Intel's "San Clemente" 5100 chipset, which supports dual-core and quad-core Xeon processors in a two-socket configuration; the unit has four hot-swap disk drives (two for each server). Rackable offers AC and DC power options, and boasts that its AC power supplies offer 92.5 percent efficiency and its DC power supplies are at 96.5 percent efficiency. A lot of servers these days have power supplies in the high 80 percent or so range, and each extra percent is harder and harder to wring out. So these are really good numbers.

The Rackable Systems XE2004

For customers who need a little more storage, Rackable has cooked up the XE2006 half-depth rack server, which puts two of these San Clemente boards on the right side of the box, stacked vertically atop each other, with room for six 3.5-inch SAS drives on the other side of the server. This machine will also have an Opteron option, allowing companies to deploy dual-core or quad-core Rev F Opterons from Advanced Micro Devices if they prefer them to Intel's Xeons. The XE2006, as this machine is called, will be available in the third quarter, and presumably the XE2004 will be updated to support the Opteron boards as well (but Noer did not say this would happen). The XE2006 has AC and DC power options as well.

The Rackable Systems XE2008

The next and larger Rackable machine announced this week is the XE2208, which is a 2U rack-mounted enclosure that will also be available in the third quarter and that packs four of the Xeon-based server boards into a full-depth rack. The unit, as you can see from the picture, has eight 3.5-inch SAS drives in the front of the unit (two per server again). The XE2208 has AC and DC power options as well, and is designed to have a maximum system power of 624 watts (160 watts per server) with both sockets, all memory, both disks, and I/O slots all loaded. This rating assumes that customers are using the 50-watt variants of Intel's Xeon chips and eight 1 TB disk drives burning 7 watts each. This server is designed and optimized to fit into Rackable's ICE Cube containerized data centers, which were announced last year.

In addition to its namesake rack-mounted servers, Rackable this week is also announcing that it will ship a 9U blade-style enclosure called the Scale Out Blade ST2000 that will put a dozen half-height Xeon-based blade servers into the chassis along with four disk drives per module (a total of 48 drives in the enclosure). The ScaleOut 2000 has three power supplies, and a shared fan design for all the blades in the box. The blade box will be available in the third quarter as well. It fits in a 50U rack.

The Rackable Systems Scale Out Blade ST2000 Chassis

Rackable is all about density. Its current C1001 servers can put 672 processor cores in a rack and consume 15.6 kilowatts using 50-watt processors, while the C2004 servers support only 336 cores but offer twice as many disk drives in a rack at 168 drives and consume only 8.5 kilowatts of juice. The XE2004 machines, by contrast, offer the same 168 disk drives in a 42U rack of the C2004 but has the same 672 cores as the C1001--the best of both designs crammed into the same space and using only 14.4 kilowatts, for a savings of 7.7 percent on the energy budget even while doubling the disk storage on the servers. The XE2006 machines offer the same 672 cores per rack, but boosts local storage to 252 drives in the rack and hits 15 kilowatts of juice. And using the Scale Out Blade 2000 design, Rackable can deliver 768 cores per rack and 284 drives within an 18.7 kilowatt power budget. For those with the most processing needs, the XE2208 comes in a 50U rack that holds 800 processor cores and 200 drives in a 16 kilowatt power budget. Using the XE2208 servers in the ICE Cube containers, Rackable can plunk down 28 racks of machines with 22,400 cores, 5,600 disk drives, and do it within a 448 kilowatt power envelope.

The base XE2004 blade server with two boards and four Xeon low-voltage processors has a list price of $3,995. Pricing was not announced for the machines that are not yet shipping but are expected between now and the end of September.


High Voltage DC Systems for Data Centers Cut Power Use

Rackable Builds Data Centers in Shipping Containers, Too

Supermicro to Go Public, and Rackable Systems Show Why

Rackable Systems Goes Back to Wall Street for $226.5 Million

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Why File-based System Backup is your Best Bet
File-based, Full System Backups Create Advantages Over Image-based Backups

File-based backups used for system recovery have been around for years. And, until recently, file-based meant a long, painstaking, manual process capable of turning off even the most meticulous system administrator. Image-based backups, then, seemed to solve this problem by eliminating the need to deal with recreating partitions, filesystems, volume groups or other details related to the system's storage configuration. In an image-based restore, the storage configuration and data from the original system are restored as a whole to the new system. While this method produced fast recovery times, Linux administrators began to realize disk image backup was more of an alternative method with its own set of problems and limitations than an answer to the challenges of manual, file-based backup.

Limitations to Disk Image Backup
Since disk image backups make no distinction between files and instead backup the hard drive as a group of sectors, bare-metal recovery can be quick and easy by simply rewriting a duplicate image onto a new, identical disk drive. A fine solution, as long as the old system and new system are indeed identical in types, sizes, locations- basically the exact same hardware. Any differences in hardware, however, could render an image backup unusable.

Many system administrators know first-hand the frustration caused by the inflexibility of image-based backup. "What I hear time and time again from clients is that they switched from image-based backup to file-based because of the limitations they encountered when trying to restore a backup onto different hardware." said Manuel Altamirano, Storix Software Director of Sales and Marketing. "Administrators assume they will have access to identical hardware after a disaster or for migration when the time comes. Unfortunately, so often this is not the case. Companies are left with unplanned, excessive downtime."

Even more advanced disk image backup products, that offer alterations to disk partition tables, still fail to understand more advanced and increasingly common storage configuration tools such as the Logical Volume Manager (LVM) or Software RAID (meta-disks) that also must be altered to match new hard disk configuration before data can be restored. In these cases, users must manually alter and build the configuration, usually through command-line utilities and manual editing of configuration files. This also requires users to have knowledge on how to make a system bootable. Rebuilding a system using a disk image backup requires experienced Linux administrators and could take days, weeks or longer resulting in crippling downtime for an organization.

Advances in File-based Backup
File-based backup tools today can automate the process of recording every aspect of a system separately such as disk, filesystem and boot loader configuration while supporting all popular Linux storage configuration tools (i.e. LVM and Software RAID). This detailed backup information is used to greatly simplify the recovery of a failed system from scratch, even if hardware differences are detected on the new system. Furthermore, systems rebuilt from the ground up using file-based backups often times operate better than the original because there is virtually no fragmentation when the restore is completed.

    Flexible recovery based on file-based backup
    File-based backup products have the ability to reconfigure disks, partitions, filesystems and other storage solutions to fit onto new hardware. This ability to adapt a backup to fit new hardware or alter the system's storage configuration is called "Adaptable System Recovery" or ASR. Only backup solutions that gather details about the original system have enough information and flexibility to make the ASR process of altering configuration so simple even novice Linux administrators can quickly perform the recovery. Once new configuration is completed, data files from the backup are easily restored onto the new hardware. Finally, the system is made bootable based on the new hardware.

    The revolutionary adaptability of ASR found in file-based backup tools creates further added value for system administrators because these products can now be used for far more than just reactive tasks such as disaster recovery.
    Applications for ASR:
  • Disaster Recovery- restore systems in minutes after a crash, even if hardware is not the same as the original
  • Provisioning/cloning- a single backup "golden image" can be used to provision different systems, even if disks, adapters or other elements are not the same.
  • Storage software migration- change configuration on the same system for improved performance and availability
  • Hardware migration- install the same system onto newer or virtual systems
    New system backup management features
    Products using file-based system backup have not neglected to consider a system administrator's daily backup responsibilities. These products now incorporate functionality for backup management as well as some of the most advanced features seen in backup and recovery solutions for Linux and AIX. Some advanced features designed to simplify daily backup management for system administrators include:
  • Graphical, Web and Command line interfaces
  • Local and remote backups to disk or tape devices
  • Sequential and random tape autoloader support
  • Support for SAN storage solutions
  • Tivoli Storage Manager integration
  • Oracle database backup support
  • Backup data encryption
  • Multiple compression levels

File-based Backup Solutions Provide Most Bang for the Buck
Inexpensive products exist that combine both file-based backup management and ASR in one program. Look for a file-based system backup product with advanced features like those mentioned above. In turn, regular backup responsibilities such as automatically verifying backups and encrypting backup data will become much easier. Additionally, combined ASR capabilities greatly reduce downtime and required expertise for both reactive (even bare metal) and proactive recovery projects. File-based system backup and recovery solutions are an economical and more comprehensive option than their image-based counterparts.

About the Author
Anne Stobaugh is an independent contractor working with Storix Software to educate Linux and AIX users on the advantages of file-based backup and recovery solutions.

Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
Shannon O'Donnell, Victor Rozek, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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