ITWorks: Building Its Own Blade Servers Becomes A New Business

ITWorks is coming to market with a custom-built blade server family that stems from its parent company's search for a better way to build weather maps for the broadcasting industry.

Chico, Calif.-based ITWorks builds blade servers based on Intel Xeon or Atom or on Via processors -- and even bends its own sheet metal -- on a custom basis for customers looking to move away from the proprietary blade servers sold by most manufacturers.

ITWorks got its start as a group of technicians within IntelliWeather, a developer of technology that provides broadcasters and others with live weather map images, said Anthony Watts, founder and owner.

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IntelliWeather was looking for a way to cut server-related power costs, which for the 50-plus servers it was running cost up to $3,000 a month, and decided to try its hand at building its own servers, Watts said.

"The chassis and blades were designed by us to solve our own problems," he said. "But they worked so well, we turned them into products we could sell. We've been using our own blades for years. This is 'Mark 4.' We just decided it's ready to sell to other customers."

ITWorks has been selling its blade servers direct. However, Watts said, the company is looking for distributors and systems integrators interested in its product line.

Initially, ITWorks explored using blade servers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other name-brand vendors but decided it did not want to be tied to proprietary chasses and blades, Watts said. For instance, with most vendors, an upgrade in blade chassis means it's time to buy new server blades as well, he said.

A primary goal was to build those blades and their chasses using no proprietary components. "If a broadcaster is broadcasting the weather at 3:00 a.m., and a server power supply blows up, we want them to be able to run to Wal-Mart and get a new power supply," he said.

Another goal was to give customers the opportunity to mix and match servers in a chassis according to their requirements, Watts said.

"Blades today from most server vendors are homogeneous," he said. "You buy a Dell chassis, and all the blades inside look pretty much the same. But our customers have varying workloads. It makes no sense to use the latest Intel quad-core Xeon processors for downloading satellite data. So we can have a quad-core Xeon blade sitting next to a Via-based or an Intel Atom-based blade which is running some mundane task."

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ITWorks' blade servers are essentially metal plates on which an industry-standard Mini-ITX or Thin Mini-ITX motherboard with the customer's choice of processors and hard drives are mounted. The blades slip into one of two chassis enclosures, including a 4U version with room for eight Thin Mini-ITX server blades and a 6U version with room for nine Mini-ITX blades.

Because each blade is based on an industry-standard motherboard, there is no single backplane. Instead, the connectors for each server are accessed individually from the back of the chassis.

"Over time, the backplanes eventually fail, and they don't allow the diversity of server blades we provide," Watts said. "So we left our system open. If we built a custom backplane, we'd kill the diversity of our system."

Instead of standard power supplies, power for the server blades is provided externally by commonly available AC-to-DC power supply "bricks" that are also used by mobile PCs, Watts said. As a result, the entire chassis runs on 12 VDC power.

"This allows us to remove the power supply from the chassis," he said. "Other vendors integrate the power supplies in the chassis, so they need to have a way to remove the heat. Also, if you need to replace a power supply in three years, where can you find one? So we took our cue from the laptop industry and went with power bricks."

By using mobile PC power bricks, the chassis is easy to cool and is more power-efficient than most servers, Watts said. The bricks also can be easily replaced and recycled if there is a problem.

"And the bricks are cheap, maybe $25 retail," he said.

The only proprietary component is the six fans inside the chassis for cooling the motherboards. They also run on an external power brick. If one fails, an alarm on the chassis sounds, Watts said.

Each blade inside the chasses can be configured differently, Watts said. "For example, in a small business, there may be a server for accounting, Web, the file server, backups, and point of sale," he said. "These can all be done with one blade chassis. And in the future, if one of the servers needs an upgrade, any user, any hobbyist, can pull out the blade and replace it."


This story was updated on July 9, 2012, at 3:36 p.m. PST, to accurately reflect location of company headquarters.