New Dell division will design Web 2.0 datacentres

Customised server farms are the vendor's latest offering

Dell has launched a division to design customised datacentres for companies that rely on servers to run their businesses, such as Web 2.0 firms and internet search engines.

The company famous for direct sales to customers is looking for salvation in a new corner of the market — the world’s largest corporations. Dell is struggling to regain its footing after poor financial results and accounting investigations led founder Michael Dell to dismiss Kevin Rollins in January and return as CEO.

Dell’s new Data Centre Solutions (DCS) division will extend the company’s build-to-order business model from individual PCs to large server farms. The division will optimise entire datacentres with the best power and cooling, networking, motherboards, form factors and packaging, says Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of DCS.

Dell hopes to sell the service to only the largest web-based companies, the top dozen or two dozen hyper-scale datacentres of the business world, Norrod says. Potential customers include finance firms, online retailers, government and academic agencies, oil producers and major internet players such as Amazon.con, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Until now, companies with large datacentres have had to design their own networks with general-purpose products, Norrod says. Now Dell is offering them optimised networking equipment, storage and rack-mounted servers.

Despite the small number of customers, the market sector is quite large. The top two dozen companies alone buy nearly 10% of servers by volume, and are growing fast, Norrod says.

Dell’s earliest customers have asked for help in minimising latency or increasing memory and I/O so they can guarantee fast and reliable web services. To reach those goals, DCS engineers have worked on approaches like installing multicore processors and increasing virtualised computing. But the most common theme among these companies is diversity — Norrod says he has seen at least six different OSes used in the first dozen datacentres he has analysed.

That makes sense, because these datacentres are so large that the companies building them had no models to follow, one analyst says.

“The Googles of the world were pioneers. They were masters at taking a bunch of commodity hardware and customising it, stringing it together to make a really huge system,” says George Hamilton, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group. “Now there are some out there who are struggling to maintain their heterogenous environments, maybe having scalability problems. That’s the risk of rolling your own — eventually you reach a stage where it’s hard to manage.”

In contrast, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems have always sold systems that rely on standard components such as blade servers, he says. Dell could possibly make an impact by taking a middle road, approaching the large companies with an offer to make their server farms a little more consistent while still maintaining their original x86-based processing environments, for example.

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