Data Centers

The modular server approach for small organizations

There are no shortage of ways to design infrastructure to solve a specific problem. One popular new trend is the modular server, as Rick Vanover explains.

One of the things I enjoy in my professional capacity is that I constantly am exposed to different environments. Most of those environments are focused on delivering an optimized VMware or Hyper-V infrastructure, which makes sense today.

For midsize or larger organizations, I’m indeed a fan of the pod-based approach for data center provisioning techniques. But for smaller organizations, there is a great opportunity to deliver all of the features for a virtualized infrastructure; however, there are clear guardrails around price and complexity.

One way to solve this is the modular server approach. I spoke to a system administrator at a non-profit organization (very price-conscious) recently, and this person totally sold me on this approach for the right size organization. The basic principle of a modular server approach is that there are a limited number of compute resources, but they have direct access to a storage array. This is the key difference between a modular server approach and a blade environment. Figure A below outlines how the modular server approach would deliver four servers running VMware vSphere:

Figure A

Shared storage - with no SAN

Shared storage - with no SAN

This logical expression of an infrastructure is much like others that may leverage shared storage and other typical components associated with a vSphere infrastructure. The key difference here is that the storage is provided via a local storage array, in many cases with modular storage, it is a SAS interface. SAS interfaces can be provisioned as multi-port. Think about the file system that may be used for vSphere environments -- in this arrangement, a VMFS volume is by itself a clustered file system. This means that there is no requirement for a storage coordinator node, and the storage itself can manage the access by multiple ESX(i) hosts.

I’ve seen this configuration used in a number of configurations, including supporting retail operations and smaller data centers. The person I spoke with at length previously was using an Intel Modular Server Chassis like that shown in Figure B below:

Figure B

Intel Modular Server Chassis

Note that there is a good amount of (potential) storage available for the (up to 8) servers on the chassis. That is the difference from the blade approach (which also has its benefits). You might ask,  "What if the chassis or the storage array fails?" That’s a fair point. I spend a lot of my time around data protection, so I’d design around failure in that regard.

The fact of the matter is that the flexibility here is great. You can provide VM migration capabilities, and the array locally on the server is supported to be VMFS -- which means you can use VMware vMotion. Don’t believe me? Check the vSphere Compatibility Guide online. The small environment does not have to settle for local storage only in this situation and gets (some) of the benefits of shared storage.

Have you used a modular server chassis? What is your experience with this compute platform? Share your comments below.

About

Rick Vanover is a software strategy specialist for Veeam Software, based in Columbus, Ohio. Rick has years of IT experience and focuses on virtualization, Windows-based server administration, and system hardware.

7 comments
b4real
b4real

I'd love to see Intel or another OEM replace this line of products...

pethers
pethers

As per the comment above, effectively you need two enclosures to have redundancy in a modular (blade) setup. And during my investigations of such a setup for my own environment I found that it was prohibitively more expensive to buy a blade enclosure than buying standalone 2U servers which offer considerably more redundancy. They are only cost effective for larger organisations in my experience. Maybe someone needs to point this out to the product vendors?

jwhitetr
jwhitetr

Don't you essentially need two of these in case the first one fails?

rodegaard
rodegaard

I've deployed several of these, running VMware 4 and found them to be flexible and reliable. Although the Intel Modular Server has been around for a long time, I'm sad to hear that Intel is discontinuing them and hope they have a replacement in mind.

dendicott
dendicott

We were early adopters of the Intel Modular Server platform and have several of them in our small data center. We use them for server virtualization as well as VDI. We cater to small and medium business, and in that space we have not found another platform that fits as well as the modular server for virtualization projects. Performance of the shared storage is great, networking options are flexible and easy to configure. It is too bad that Intel announced in April that they will stop taking orders for their modular servers on November 1, 2013. http://www.intel.com/support/motherboards/server/sb/CS-034272.htm We are actively looking for an alternative with similar features. David L. Endicott President, NeoTech Solutions, Inc. www.neotechsolutions.com

rodegaard
rodegaard

If the motherboard in your 2U box goes down, you're dead in the water. Maybe buy a spare chassis for the Intel box - no power supplies, no disks, no compute modules. Then you'd be covered if something in the chassis went.

jwhitetr
jwhitetr

Does the second chassis include the array controller? At $5K street, you're over the cost of some 2U server configurations.

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