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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

SAN FRANCISCO–Top Dell executives disparaged the “big iron” approach of building large, powerful servers on Tuesday–a dig at rivals IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

Those competitors see expensive, refrigerator-sized servers with dozens of processors as a good way to tackle high-end corporate computing tasks. Dell prefers clusters of lower-end systems linked over a high-speed network.

“The notion of big iron becomes less and less interesting in our opinion,” as standard processors, networking and storage technology grow steadily more powerful, Jeff Clarke, senior vice president of products for Dell, said at the Oracle OpenWorld conference here. “We’re going to reshape and rebuild how the data center and enterprise are going to be rebuilt in the future.”

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Carly Fiorina on stage at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco.

A crucial component in making server clusters useful is a database that can spread across them–a database such as Oracle 10g, which Chairman Michael Dell touted during a keynote speech.

Dell’s partnership with Oracle is aimed at luring customers away from Sun servers running the Unix operating system. In his speech, Dell said that in the past year, 30 percent of instances of Oracle being used on Dell servers occured at companies that migrated from proprietary Unix-based machines.

In May, executives from HP and IBM forecast that clusters will encroach, but that big-iron systems’ capabilities mean they won’t be replaced. Judy Chavis, director of business development for Dell’s enterprise product group, flatly disagreed.

“From a mainframe or a Unix system, there isn’t anything you can’t replace today on an Intel box,” Chavis said in an interview Tuesday. The biggest hurdle is convincing customers familiar with large system that clusters are viable, she said. To do so, Dell points to price, performance and real-world customers.

The vision of clusters of smaller servers has merit, though the approach isn’t suitable for all database tasks, Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said.

“They can potentially handle most workloads today, except for big databases and big enterprise applications,” Haff said. “One issue is management and complexity: It’s easier on one big server than many small ones.”

Sun, IBM and HP sell massive multiprocessor systems, but they’ve also embraced clustering. And IBM has a cluster version of its DB2 database that competes with Oracle’s.

To make cluster technology simpler to use, Dell is working with Oracle, chipmaker Intel and storage specialist EMC on a project called MegaGrid. The effort, announced Tuesday, focuses on 128 dual-processor Dell servers running Oracle 10g and other applications.

MegaGrid is not a product, but rather a project to develop technology and help customers sort out best practices, Clarke said. It acts as a template for companies putting together clusters. Online retailer is using the MegaGrid architecture, according to Dell.

Dell spokeswoman Wendy Giever noted that it’s possible Dell could package the technology into a bundle as it matures.

Right now, the MegaGrid project uses Red Hat’s version of Linux as its operating system. Dell is developing a new version that uses Novell’s SuSE Linux as well as Microsoft Windows, Chavis said. In addition, Dell is working to add higher-level Oracle software to the system.

MegaGrid uses management software that can automatically “deprovision and reprovision” servers–in other words, change what software tasks they’re running as demands change, Chavis said.

Earlier this decade, Dell dabbled with big iron itself. It signed a deal in 2000 to sell Unisys ES7000 servers with as many as 32 Xeon processors. It stepped away from that partnership in 2002, though–and then kept walking away. In 2003, Dell canceled plans for eight-processor servers, saying that four-processor machines are good enough.