It used to be easy to tell when a server was ready to be put out to pasture. With CPU speeds clicking upward like a shuttle launch, it wasn't terribly hard to justify aging out a 1.3GHz Pentium III server for a 2.26GHz Pentium 4 box. But the yearly boost in clock speed hasn't been in effect for a while now. What's more, we're suddenly very aware of just how little clock speed really matters for a large swath of the data center.
A huge number of older single- and dual-core servers are still running, chewing up tons of power and heat, spinning 3.5-inch U320 SCSI drives that seem more and more like dinosaurs every day. But they're quickly becoming relics of the pre-virtualization era. We're starting to look at those servers much like we looked at a 1969 GTO Judge in 1976 -- new enough to be only a few years old and in perfect running condition, but so expensive to drive that you had to get rid of it.
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Today, you can't buy a midrange server without getting NUMA and all the massive performance benefits it represents. You can't buy even a small-end server today without at least a quad-core CPU. Even Dell's "My First Server" bottom-line specs include a quad-core option, and the absolute cheapest box comes with a 2.26GHz dual-core Celeron G1101 and 1GB of RAM for $299. That's 75 percent of the cost of the low-end iPad, for crying out loud. I've had far, far bigger bar tabs -- just ask my editor.
As we roll headlong into the virtualization era, we're tossing all these older boxes out the door and realizing the server that once took up four rack units, weighed 95 pounds, and had three 1,000-watt power supplies can now be virtualized -- and run as one of many virtual servers on a 1U server with a few Opterons -- while still enjoying a performance boost. In many companies, the measure of a virtualization initiative's success is not just the total number of servers removed, but in the number of server racks removed. The biggest are measuring in entire data centers.