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Search for Energy Efficient Servers Leads Ex-Weatherman to Build-a-Blade

Mix and Match Mini-ITX Blades Fit the Task and Lower the Energy Bill

The Next Blade Revolution Begins
Open platforms have always meant more cost savings and greater flexibility in business computing. In the ‘80s, proprietary desktops gave way to clones, and the ‘90s saw proprietary servers and workstations dissolve into off-the-shelf x86 architectures. Today, a handful of "big iron" vendors own the blade market with their proprietary enclosures and restrictive designs...and history is about to repeat itself.

Change in the Wind
In 1978, Anthony Watts was a Purdue-trained TV meteorologist with a background in electrical engineering. By 1985, when Willard Scott was in his prime, Watts invented the first NTSC broadcast encoder for the IBM PC for use in television weather broadcasts. Not content with the then-blazing 6 MHz of IBM AT machines, which could take up to ten minutes to render a single frame, Watts modded the computers with a custom cooling design, allowing them to double their stock speeds, and started using them for processing weather graphics data. His company, IntelliWeather, soon created some of the first-ever PC-based broadcast TV weather systems, and a decade later, he was supplying weather graphics and display solutions to CBS News as well as TV stations around the USA

Over nearly two decades of innovation, IntelliWeather progressed from 16-color displays to today's full-color HD. Whereas it once took minutes to render a frame, today's 30 fps output is done in nearly real-time. The incoming streams of data from NOAA satellite feeds are massive enough to fill eight T1 lines every second. Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of computing power to render so much raw data into forms that broadcasters and scientists can use.

IntelliWeather has its own server farm, and each server tends to have its own job. Some do pre-processing, some render, and so on. The workflow is linear from incoming satellite feed through processing and on to another server farm in Sacramento that distributes finished data to television stations. As the data load increases, both in input and output, Watts and IntelliWeather continually need more processing capability and more servers.

Slicing the Power
Through eBay in 2008, Watts connected with a movie production company doing CGI that no longer needed an entire rack of Intel 1U rendering servers. Watts purchased the whole stack, installed them, and everything was fine because initial utilization of the new machines was fairly low. However, by the summer of 2010, every server was running nearly at capacity around the clock, each one continuously pulling about 180W. The more heat the servers generated, the more air conditioning had to be used. Warm season power bills just for this server stack were hitting $3,000 per month-no small expense for a small company.

Like so many other SMBs and small enterprises, IntelliWeather needed a better way to scale its computing capabilities while taking a leap in power efficiency. At the same time, it needed a better answer as to how it should dispose of existing servers that had reached their end of life. Donating that end of life technology to Computers For Classrooms was fine, but perhaps there was a better long-term approach.

In recent years, the rise of blade servers addressed some of Watts's needs but not enough of them. He investigated many of the blade options from top name manufacturers. Like all blade offerings, they offered the ability to start with one server in an enclosure and add more blades as needs dictated. In terms of footprint, the blade systems were more space-efficient than usual rackmount servers. However, every blade solution IntelliWeather examined was proprietary, requiring the vendor's own motherboards for that particular blade platform for any upgrading or replacements. Furthermore, the amount of energy savings advertised was not in line with Watts's needs.

So Watts did what any former electrical engineer and hardware hacker would do. He built what he wanted from scratch, just like he did for broadcast TV display systems.

Better with Build-a-Blade
First, Watts knew that different processing tasks require different types of server capabilities. The heavy lifting of rendering might benefit most from a cutting edge Xeon or Core i7 processor, but a server tasked with downloading from a low-speed, secondary satellite channel needs nothing more than a budget-friendly VIA C7. In traditional blade systems he examined, it was impossible to accommodate such diversity.

Second, to make systems upgradeable for the long-term, form factors are needed. An ATX desktop PC chassis purchased 15 years ago is still compatible with any ATX or microATX motherboard sold today because ATX is a widely adopted open standard. Yet such standards have never existed in the world of blade servers.

Third, even though big name blade systems advertise highly integrated power efficiency, energy savings gained through integration can be more than tossed away by requiring higher-consuming components than needed for the tasks at hand. Why require a 120W TDP processor on a blade when a 20W chip will serve equally well for much less money (both up front and ongoing)? Furthermore, the internal AC power supplies used in conventional blade systems are inherently less efficient than DC options. Studies have shown that data centers can realize power-saving improvements of over 28% by switching from AC to DC power distribution. Similar benefits can be realized at the rack and system level from making similar changes. Using DC power for computers isn't new; every notebook PC does it. But until now, the application to blade systems has been limited. With the popularization of green technology and demanding better energy efficiency, there has been a renewed interest in DC power systems.

IntelliWeather, branding its broadcast hardware as ITWorks, spent two years designing and refining its new Build-a-Blade product. Quite simply, Build-a-Blade is a 6U enclosure that can fit up to nine blades. Each blade is designed to fit any Mini-ITX or Thin Mini-ITX motherboard and up to six 2.5" storage drives, or a single 3.5" drive. Mini-ITX is a standard open form factor, originally designed by VIA in 2001, that is only gaining in popularity as the move for smaller, more energy-efficient systems continues.

Each Build-a-Blade tray uses a 12VDC power input port that links back to a dedicated DC "brick" on the enclosure's communal power supply tray. If a PSU ever goes bad, the user simply unplugs the appropriate brick from the tray, fastens down a new one in its spot, and the maintenance is complete. There's no complex disassembly involved, as in some other blade designs. Further, the DC power port enables these systems to be fueled by solar or wind power (with appropriate battery backup). Target applications might be in remote telecommuncations or mobile scenarios wherein a number of computers are needed, such as a mobile command center.

The final Build-a-Blade product cut IntelliWeather's $3,000 power bill down to less than $1,000. The stack of nine 2U servers that consumed 18U of rack space and 1080W now takes 6U and sips a mere 198W. With so much less power and heat waste, as well as an optimized 454 CFM airflow system, Build-a-Blade is also substantially quieter than the prior systems, which is valuable in smaller businesses where people spend all day working near their servers.

ITWorks now offers Build-a-Blade in configurations ranging from  a starter DIY enclosure with one or more blades, to a fully configured system with nine blades. Common management tools based on IPMI or Intel's AMT are readily available and fully compatible with any installed Thin/Mini-ITX motherboards supporting those features. Build-a-Blade also recently launched a 4U eight blade system, using the new Thin Mini-ITX form factor. Depending on the configuration, some of these blades have a total power dissipation of less than 15 watts each.

The first PC "clones" appeared in 1982, and they signaled the end of IBM's proprietary grip on the PC market. Build-a-Blade will do the same for the blade market, helping to bring costs down, promote radical energy savings, and give customers much better return on their investment because they'll be buying exactly what they need and reusing their hardware for many more years to come.

More Stories By Pat Meier-Johnson

Pat Meier-Johnson is a long-time contributor to the digital industry with a specialty in mobile technology. Pat produces the Connected Traveler Technology Showcase and is president of Pat Meier Associates, a PR and media production company specializing in technology and travel.