It Just Works

Zipper BackgroundLast weekend I decided to get a new shirt for a birthday party I needed to attend, so I stopped by to visit my new friend Vic’s shop.  I walked in wearing an old college hoodie with a broken zipper.  It’s my favorite sweatshirt; it’s soft, comfortable, and my go-to uniform on the weekends.  I didn’t expect the reaction I got from Vic.  “TRAVESTY!” he scolded.  “What is this you are wearing”?

“I love this old thing– we’ve been through a lot together,” I replied.

With his thumb and middle finger, he flicked the broken zipper and told me that grown men shouldn’t dress like college boys. I laughed in agreement, but I love my broken hoodie.  He said the least I could do was replace the zipper and offered to do so right then and there, which I let him do. (I really think he just didn’t want anyone see someone walk out of his shop with such a “travesty” of a sweatshirt.) While he fixed my worn down hoodie, he gave me a little history lesson on the Zipper.

The zipper is an industry standard that has been gone nearly unchanged since its debut over a hundred years ago. (Vic’s knowledge of his industry and craft seemed limitless.) “This thing has been around for a hundred years and no one ever thought about updating it, or making it better, because—well, it just works,” he said, holding the broken piece of my zipper in his hand. “But you know what,” he continued, “Someone did.” Vic went on to tell me about a young guy from back east who invented a new zipper to help a sick uncle, who only had functional use of one hand. He invented a zipper that used magnets to so his uncle could “zip” things up without help.

It was a cool story, and by the time we caught up on sports and our families, Vic was done — and I went on my way with a couple tailored shirts and my trusted old hoodie.  That zipper story made me realize there are a number of things that we accept as the standard because, as Vic said, they just work.

I went in to work the following day still mulling over the blindly-accepted standards and thought about our flagship product, the BladeRack 2.  The BladeRack 2 is an open platform for converged architecture, which means it’s a very dense foundation for the IT building blocks of a corporation.  It is the evolution of the standard 19-inch, 42U rack.  It is a highly-dense and efficient evolution of the 19-inch rack.

The standard 19-inch rack has its roots in telephony with documented references to a “relay rack” towards the later part of the 1800’s.  The current standards of the 19 inch rack format with 1.75 inch rack units (1U) and holes tapped with alternating spacing 1.25 inches were established in 1934.  I can’t think of anything else in our industry that is 80 years old.  Aside from the patented use of new material to build the rack in 1965, there hasn’t been any innovations around the rackmount cabinet. Simply put — because it worked.  We’ve accepted the idea that the data center will have a cold row and a hot row because that’s how it’s always been. Sure, there are companies out there whose products help squeeze out additional cooling with chimneys, fans, and other bolt-on parts. But the rack remains the same.

Then, in 2002, a little company out of San Diego, CA (a city known more for its fish tacos and beaches than technology) challenged conventional wisdom and sought out to reinvent the wheel.  Still bound by the laws of thermal dynamics, the challenge was developing a way to maximize the density of computing within the standard parameters of a rack (6 sq ft), and somehow cool it. At that time, 1U dual processor machines were the bleeding edge of technology. Dave Driggers and the engineers of the project were already building and deploying 1U rackmount systems using copper heatsinks and 1U (40mm) fans.  Lots of them. These fans are still being used today.  The few problems with the fans are they are loud and tend to fail fairly quickly, which results in the server being brought down for service.

The BladeRack addressed both of those problems. By using the basic idea of heat rising, the rack itself pulls the cold air from the floor, pushes it up through the systems’ CPU’s, RAM and HDD, and out through the top of the rack.  By taking the small, loud, undependable 1U fans out of the environment and replacing them with larger, slower moving, more dependable and hot swappable fans, the new system was capable of moving a much greater volume of air and more dependable (up to 4500CFM).  It also increased density, without the limitations of the 1U chassis and fans. The BladeRack increased density by over 70% to 72 vertically mounted systems in the square feet of space.

It was the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking that really takes some time to digest.  Vertical blades were coming in to the market at the same time, but they were mounted in 19 inch rack mounted chassis that still used the old front-to-back cooling that has been around for a 80 years.

The BladeRack has gone through a few revisions since its development. The current revision can house up to 96 dual processor systems and is more efficient and more flexible than the original design.  It is the basis for Cirrascale’s open system, converged infrastructure that can house traditional servers, high performance compute nodes, storage, virtualized machines, as well as high end, remote access workstations using Teradici’s PCoIP protocol.

Although we are in a fairly mature market, we are seeing a lot of innovation in maximizing rack space in the data center.  Twin systems can reach the density within the rack but require a secondary rack to handle the cooling which quite frankly, defeats the purpose of the density of those systems.

Like the zipper, no one really thinks about the 19-inch rackmount cabinet as a bottle neck because it just works, until there is a need.  Modern datacenters are pressed for space, power and cooling. Traditional methods are not going to scale to the demands of the modern enterprise.  The BladeRack 2 was designed and built to address the demands of today’s datacenters, not the telco closet of 1965.  To discover more about the BladeRack 2 or Cirrascale, contact us. Anyone of us would be happy to tell you more.

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