Research groups gravitate to IBM's sideways server cluster

iDataPlex cluster uses innovative design to lower power use

One year ago, IBM made a play for the Web 2.0 market with iDataPlex, a server cluster designed for the needs of Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

So far, though, IBM says the technology has gained more traction in the university and high-performance computing worlds.

"It turns out the majority of customer interest is coming from the high-performance computing space," says Herb Schultz, IBM's deep-computing marketing manager.

Out of several hundred customers, about 75% bought the iDataPlex for high-performance computing, rather than to build Web 2.0 sites, Schultz says. While IBM did not predict that would be the case, Schultz says "it makes perfect sense. The product really does comport with their need to find a low-cost, high-performance technology."

The iDataPlex fits up to 84 servers with a design that pushes two racks together, allowing them to share power whips and cables. IBM focused on lowering power use by rotating the servers horizontally 90 degrees, letting fans run at a lower velocity, and by adding an optional rear-door heat exchanger that extracts heat from the system.

Sharing power cables reduces the system's fault-tolerance, but the Web 2.0 companies the iDataPlex is designed for have built their systems to quickly fail over from one server to another. In their case, the sacrifice is worth it in order to gain power and cost efficiencies, IBM said when it introduced the system.

Microsoft became one of the first companies to deploy an iDataPlex last year, when it decided to use the system to benchmark Windows HPC Server 2008, its cluster computing operating system, according to IBM.

The University of Toronto's SciNet research consortium chose the iDataPlex to build a supercomputer capable of 360 trillion calculations per second, while the University of Louisville deployed the system to help solve research problems in areas such as cancer research and atmospheric modeling.

High-performance computing customers often lead the way when it comes to deploying new types of systems, Schultz notes, but IBM is still seeing some interest from Web 2.0 companies, including ones in the online gaming market.

Co-location vendor Latisys bought an iDataPlex to support several of its gaming customers. Latisys paid IBM about $170,000 for the 84-server system, but it would have cost significantly more to purchase a similarly-configured blade chassis, says Carlos Oliviera, head of IT at Latisys in Fairfax, Va.

Oliviera notes that the iDataPlex's power supplies lack redundancy found in other systems, but says the rack offers high density and is easy to configure. "We were looking for a high-density solution we could offer to customers that were growing," he says.

The iDataPlex competes against server clusters offered by IBM rivals like HP, Dell and Sun, and is facing a new challenge from Cisco's Unified Computing System. The iDataPlex was recently updated with the latest Intel Xeon processors, but Schultz says IBM's goal is to differentiate the product with its efficient form factor, which fits all 84 servers into a 4-foot-by-2-foot rack.

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