Dell uses Via Nano netbook chip to create modular ‘mini-servers’

Dell’s newest server isn’t powered by Intel’s high-end Xeon superslab or even a meaty Core 2 Duo workstation-class processor. But then it’s not like any server you’ve seen before.

The clumsily-named XS11-VX8 (we much preferred the product’s codename of ‘Fortuna’) is only a little longer than a 3.5 inch hard drive enclosure.

Dell’s Nano-powered VX18 mini-server module is not much larger than a 3.5 inch hard drive enclosure

Inside its compact chassis sits Via’s little Nano U2250 netbook chip backed by up to 3GB of RAM and partnered to a 2.5 inch disk which can be a hard drive or SSD. There’s also an SD card slot which can load an OS boot image and a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Think of it as the netbook equivalent to a server. Now bundle a dozen of these modular mini-servers together into a standard 2U chassis and you’ve got what Dell sees as an entirely new class of server designed for light-load duties such as Web hosting and basic server tasks in high density environments where physical space power and cooling are at a premium.

Rack ’em up: 12 of the VX18 server modules fit into a single 2U chassis

The VX8 was in fact created in response to requests from Web hosting companies seeking a type of device which was quickly realised as stacking up against a conventional server with the same relationship as a netbook to a full-featured laptop. The mini-servers will be on-sold to customers requiring dedicated hosting rather than a shared or virtualised environment.

Despite the modest specification of the Nano U2250 – a 1.8GHz single-core chip with a mere 1Mb of cache – it’s capable of running a 64-bit OS and apps and even supports Intel’s VTX virtualisation platform for running x86 virtual machines.

(While you’d be insane to want to run multiple VMs off a single Nano chip admins could create a 64-bit image on a beefier server and quickly load this onto each VX8 as needed so you can quickly scale up to meet demand).

The Nano also delivers substantial savings in power and cooling. The chip itself draws no more than 8 watts; a fully-stacked VX8 system idles 15 watts and peaks to around 25 watts under full load which is 10% of the drain for a standard two-CPU server.

A 2U rack chassis containing 12 of the Nano modules will still contain fewer fans and power supplies and draw less overall power compared to a traditional tower server according to Drew Schulke marketing manager for Dell’s Data Centre Solutions group.

“We can come in to a relatively power-constrained rack [environment] and consolidate seven racks of their current [servers] down into one of these.” Power costs are becoming increasingly important especially to the VX8’s target market of companies which buy thousands of servers in a single order. “”We could lose a deal [based] on a single watt” explains Schulke.

Dell’s debut of the VX8 comes as other players examine netbook-class processors for servers. US firm Supermicro has announced two servers based on Intel’s single-core Atom 230 and dual-core Atom 330 processors while Microsoft Research is experimenting with Windows Server systems built on a box full of Atom chips.

At Microsoft’s TechFest earlier this year the company demonstrated a datacenter cabinet stocked with 50 dual-core Atom 330 processors.

Microsoft Research’s Jim Larus explains that even though a netbook processor may offer only one-third the performance of an entry-level server chip the fact that they use one-fifth or one-tenth of that server chip’s power and also cost much less could make them a better fit for large datacentres looking to save power and costs.

Microsoft is also looking into ways that slews of the individual Atom processors can drop into sleep mode when they’re not needed to further reduce power costs.