Stratus, NEC Collaborate On Quad-core Fault-tolerant Servers


Stratus Technologies and NEC have collaborated to unveil their first quad-core fault-tolerant servers with an aim towards using virtualization to increase system availability beyond the "five-nines" gold standard.

The ftServer 6200 from Maynard, Mass.-based Stratus and the Express5800/320Fc server from Santa Clara, Calif.-based NEC Corp. of America are based on the same hardware platform, with the main differences between the two stemming from included software and differences in the vendors' approach to the channel.

NEC holds a minor stake of less than 10 percent in Stratus, according to Stratus.

The hardware itself, which is built by NEC under an agreement the two signed last year, is essentially two completely redundant servers in a single enclosure, each of which perform the same processes on the same data so that if one goes down the other continues running.

Each of the two physical servers inside the fault-tolerant server enclosure can be configured with one or two Intel Xeon quad-core processors, up to 24 Gbytes of memory and up to three SAS or SATA hard drives. Other components such as fans and power supplies are separate for the two servers for continuous availability.

The servers also come with LockStep technology under which each of the servers process the same instructions and data simultaneously so that if one goes down it does not affect the application, said Mike Mitsch, general manager of alliances and strategy at NEC.

"With LockStep, you don't lose the memory in a planned or unplanned downtime," Mitsch said. "This is great for delivering a solid SLA and for a simple high-availability solution in a remote office."

The new servers are not replacing any other servers currently being shipped by the vendors.

Denny Lane, product director at Stratus, said that part of the market for fault-tolerant servers will come from customers who prefer a fault-tolerant solution to clustered servers, which are difficult to implement.

However, Lane said, the big target market for the new servers is customers looking to virtualize part of their existing server infrastructure or who are looking to migrate their server environments using VMware or Microsoft's Virtual Server.

As a result, Stratus' 6200 now comes optimized for VMware, Lane said. "We are working with VMware on their Community Source Program, which gives us royalty-free access to their ESX technology," he said. "This lets us put fault-tolerance characteristics into their technology."

The emphasis on using virtualization with fault-tolerant servers should appeal to customers because putting too many virtual servers on a non-fault-tolerant server is like putting too many eggs in one basket, Mitsch said.

High-availability traditionally can be done in one of three ways, Mitsch said. The first is to cluster servers together, which is a complex process. The second is to set up virtual servers to run on a SAN, which is good for backups, disaster recovery and archiving, but which can lose data in memory if the system goes down.

The third is to migrate the container containing a virtual server before a physical server goes down, which is what VMware does. However, Mitsch said, in the case of unplanned downtime, it is still possible to get corrupted data.

By combining virtual servers with fault-tolerant physical servers, issues related to high-availability are eliminated, he said.

Ron Kramer, vice president and COO of All Computer Solutions, a Portland, Mne.-based solution provider which works with fault-tolerant servers from both Stratus and NEC, said fault-tolerance combined with virtualization provides significant capabilities for server consolidation.

"You look at the hardware platform, and at VMware, and you are not just reaching five nines of reliability, but six nines or seven nines," Kramer said. "We're approaching 100 percent availability."

The fact that Stratus and NEC brought Intel's quad-core processor into their new servers will lead clients to accelerate the consolidation of their server environments, Kramer said. "If you combine a virtual infrastructure and availability and the ability to manager failover, you have an extraordinary availability environment."

The two vendors' fault-tolerant offerings differ in a number of ways, including their own management software, specific software stacks provided by third-party ISVs, and their go-to-market strategy. Stratus uses a combination of direct and indirect sales, while 95 percent of NEC's sales go through the channel, Mitsch said.

The two companies also offer their own external storage arrays to go with their servers.

Servers supporting Windows Server 2003 are expected to start shipping in May or June, with servers supporting Red Hat Linux expected to be available in the third quarter.