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Volume 5, Number 1 -- January 9, 2008

Supermicro Preps for Quad-Socket Blade Push

Published: January 9, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Server and motherboard maker Supermicro Computer, is gearing up its SuperBlade blade server platform to take on the high performance computing and data centers of the world with the "Barcelona" quad-core Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices. Specifically, Supermicro has launched a four-socket blade that crams more cores into smaller spaces than blade server alternatives from IBM and Hewlett-Packard, who utterly dominate the market for commercial blade servers.

In addition to creating a four-socket Opteron board that deploys the beleaguered Barcelona chip, Supermicro is adding other features to the SuperBlade to make it more appealing to customers who want both speed and energy efficiency. But the Barcelona chip is obviously the key defining component of the new blade server. The initial Barcelona processors came to market four months late in September 2007 and at lower clock speeds than many had anticipated; then, as the year was winding down and Intel was cranking up its next-iteration "Penryn" Xeon quad-core chips using a 45 nanometer process, AMD confirmed that the chips have a bug in cache memory electronics that require patches to work around and degrade performance when implemented. So this is not exactly the perfect time to be launching an Opteron-based blade. However, AMD says it will have a rev of the Barcelona Opteron 8300s out the door in the first quarter, and clock speeds will almost certainly go up as well with these fixed chips. And the kinds of customers who want to buy quad-socket blade servers like to take a lot of time to shop. (The new blade supports dual-core Opteron 8200 processors, which are also based on the Rev F socket like the Barcelonas.) So eventually, the SuperBlade servers will get some sales.

The reasons why Supermicro will be able to sell these Barcelona-based SuperBlades SBA-7141M-T blade servers are simple: compactness, efficiency, and price/performance. The new SuperBlade board plugs into the same chassis as two-socket blades do, and it only takes up one blade slot in the box, too. The SuperBlade chassis has 10 blades in a 7U form factor. IBM's BladeCenter H chassis is larger, at 9Us, and while it has room for 14 dual-socket blade servers, the BladeCenter design requires two boards plugged together with an HTX Opteron expansion socket to create a four-socket blade, which means IBM can only pack 7 four-socket blades in its chassis. HP's BladeSystem c7000 chassis also supports four-socket Opteron configurations, but its 10U form factor can only support 8 quad-core blades (it can, however, do 16 two-socket blades). The net effect is that you can put 6 SuperBlade chasses in a single 42U rack, with 240 processors and 960 cores, which compares well with the four chasses with IBM or HP. IBM gets 112 Opteron processors and 448 Barcelona cores into the BladeCenter and HP gets 128 Opterons for a total maximum of 512 cores in the box. That works out to 8.8 teraflops of number-crunching performance per rack for the SuperBlade, compared to 4.1 teraflops for IBM's BladeCenter H and 4.7 teraflops for the HP's BladeSystem c7000.

According to Raphael Wong, director of blade and storage products at Supermicro, the company has been sampling the SBA-7141M-T blade server since November 2007 and has been shipping it in volume since December 10. Neither IBM's LS41 nor HP's BL685c quad-socket Opteron blades have been certified to support the Barcelona chips yet and are not yet selling with the chips on those companies' respective online stores.

While performance and density is a big issue with data center and HPC customers, so is power efficiency these days. Supermicro has plunked power supplies rated at 93 percent efficiency into the SuperBlade chassis, where efficiency in the high 80 percent range is the norm in the server racket. (Every percent of extra efficiency is exceedingly difficult to attain, so that is a big jump.) Supermicro is shipping three different power supplies in the box, according to Wong. A 1,400 watt power supply with two internal fans can run on 120 volt or 240 volt power, meaning customers can plug the SuperBlade into normal wall power if they don't intend to load it up. (HP and IBM are just now figuring out that this is something customers want.) The company also makes 2,000 watt and 2,500 watt power supplies available for heavier configurations, but these only run on 240 volt power. The SuperBlade supports from two to four power supplies, and with an N+1 configuration with failover can push from 4.2 kilowatts to 7.5 kilowatts of maximum juice to the servers and other components in the chassis.

There are two components of price/performance, and price is just as important as performance in that division for Supermicro as it tries to push its way into corporate, academic, and government computing centers. Wong says that IBM and HP charge roughly $10,000 for four-socket blade servers with dual-core Opteron 8200 processors running at 2.8 GHz and with 4 GB of DDR2 main memory. Supermicro expects its channel partners to sell the SBA-7141M-T blades in the same configuration for around $3,000 a pop. That's more than twice the performance per rack at one-third the cost per blade and anywhere from 36 percent to 44 percent less cash outlay per rack for just the blade servers using dual-core Opterons.

You can see from this comparison how much margin IBM and HP are keeping in their blade servers, and more importantly how much they need to since they do not manufacture their own motherboards, as Supermicro does. Supermicro, which went public last summer, has a lot to prove to Wall Street, and among other things it is trying to prove is that it can compete with the big boys in terms of engineering. The question is, can Supermicro get lots of customers and can it generate margins at these low prices?


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Supermicro to Go Public, and Rackable Systems Show Why

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