Taking the low (end) road

New products from PMC-Sierra and Brocade converge on the tantalizing low-end server market

According to a study recently published by IDC, a remarkable 92 percent of all server shipments worldwide in 2006 were volume servers (units that cost up to $25,000 each). That's nearly 7 million shipments, to put a number on it. HP shipped the majority of those servers, about 34 percent, followed by IBM and Dell, each with 20 percent.

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I didn’t have to look up the IDC data because those numbers were pointed out to me by Peter Wong, director of strategic marketing for the enterprise storage division of PMC-Sierra. You may remember PMC-Sierra's Tachyon SAS chip from a previous column. This time, my conversation with Wong focused on a new and intriguing chip architecture with built-in RAID capabilities, which PMC-Sierra announced this week.

According to the company nomenclature, the new chip is dubbed PM8010 SRC 8x6G. Wong says it's “the industry’s first 6Gbps RAID-on-Chip (RoC).” With this new chip, PMC-Sierra is targeting the motherboards of next years’ volume servers, which explains the company's interest in that IDC study. But what else besides the attractive size of the market enticed the company to design the new chip?

Two things: In 2008, servers will begin moving to PCIe 2.0 and implementing SAS 2.0, Wong suggests. These two key technological transitions will, among other improvements, increase the PCI transfer rate to 5Gbps and push SAS to 6Gbps. 

To move that data that fast, "we are bringing to the table a new nonblocking switched architecture that will eliminate the bottlenecks found in previous solutions based on a shared-bus architecture,” Wong says. Interestingly, the new chip mounts about 2MB of fast 1TRAM (single cycle access memory) but can add more conventional external memory to a DDR controller.

Will server vendors be interested in a motherboard-mounted RAID controller that promises to be fast and have a flexible configuration? HP, the company that shipped the most servers in that space last year, has already committed to the technology, according to PMC-Sierra, and other vendors may follow.

I don’t know if PMC's competitors (LSI Logic comes to mind) will catch up with a similar offering, but while we wait for that to happen, it’s interesting to note that Brocade is eyeing the same server market. If you missed the news, this article should bring you up to speed. In essence, Brocade is adding HBAs to its portfolio and, as a consequence, servers to its target market for the first time.

Doesn’t Brocade already have enough products after acquiring all those companies over the past few years? “We can bring innovation to the market with broader end-to-end connectivity across servers, SANs, and datacenter networks,” says Tom Buiocchi, vice president of worldwide marketing for Brocade.

I don’t doubt that, but I can’t help thinking that those millions of value servers, most of them not yet attached to a SAN, must be a hard temptation to resist — even for Brocade.

Join me on The Storage Network with questions or comments.

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