New NEC Server Offers Single Box at Two Prices

As it becomes clear that four-way servers are a key growth engine for Intel-based server sales, hardware vendors are striving to differentiate their offerings as they jockey for market position.

Up until this week, the award for Most Unusual Approach went to Hewlett-Packard Co. (www.hp.com) for designing and selling a six-way server at a four-way server price. Now, NEC Computers Inc. (www.neccsd.com) may have taken the prize.

NEC’s latest offering is the Express5800/180 Ra-7. NEC calls it a 4-8 way server, and it is based on NEC’s proprietary AQU A2 chipset. Customers can buy the server at four-way prices and upgrade in both price and capacity to eight-way.

"The AQU A2 chipset allows this system to be architected in such a way that you don’t need to buy the multiprocessing infrastructure until you need to upgrade the system," says Peter Thayer, director of marketing at NEC Computers’ server business unit. "You can get the system at a reasonable cost, and you buy the multiprocessing infrastructure at the time you execute the upgrade.

NEC accomplishes this feat through what it calls a cage. The base system includes four slots for processors. When customers wants to upgrade to eight processors, they purchase two cages, which carry four processors apiece. All four processors come out of the board, and one four-processor cage plugs into the first processor slot on the board. The other four-processor cage plugs into the fourth slot on the board.

Although NEC’s chipset is in its third generation, it has never been packaged this way before.

Thayer discounts concerns that routing the work of four processors through one slot affects performance. "We haven’t seen any evidence of degradation," he says.

NEC published four-way benchmarks on the Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC, www.tpc.org) test for ad hoc query performance. The company has not published eight-way benchmarks, and never published competitive results on the TPC’s OLTP benchmark using its previous generation eight-way server and its own chipset.

"We understand the four-way performance pretty well, and we’re working on the eight-way," Thayer says.

The new 4-8 way replaces NEC’s existing eight-way server, which the company stopped producing in December.

The Express 5800/Ra-7 takes up 7U in a rack, supports up to 16 GB of RAM, and is being sold with a 3U external disk array that holds up to eight 36-GB hard drives. The servers will begin shipping in May.

Right now, NEC, which is ranked fifth in worldwide server sales by market research firm IDC (www.idc.com), is best known in the US for its demonstrations of a 16-processor server designed for Intel’s 64-bit Itanium processors.