Elements of Google's most secretive product–its unique PC server design–is beginning to ripple throughout the rest of the industry.
Like many companies with giant Internet data centers, Google uses big clusters of commodity x86 servers. But unlike its competitors such as Yahoo and Microsoft, it has created a motherboard design tailored for big data centers.
Google has not disclosed details of its motherboard design, but it did release a white paper calling for designs built on 12V-only power supplies. Besides such supplies, Google's design is said to use at least two full servers per board and remove many of the unneeded parts found in many mainstream server motherboards in an effort to shave cost, reduce power consumption and increase reliability.
Google has designed and procured the boards solely for its own use to date. But now companies such as Rackable Systems Inc. (Fremont, Calif.) and others say they expect to be shipping similar boards soon.
Rackable, a system integrator that built Google's first 10,000 systems, launched a so-called CloudRack in late October, geared for big data centers. Early next year Rackable will ship for the enclosure its first 12V-only motherboards with two servers per board. Boards sporting four and six servers are running in Rackable's lab, said George Reitz, the company's vice president of sales.
Other companies are expected to follow in an effort to help reduce servers' need for space and power, two of the biggest bottlenecks for data centers today. A combination of 12V-only power supplies and point-of-load converters will help simplify what has become a rat's nest of power connections on server motherboards, spanning everything from 12V to below 3.3V, said Philip Pokorny, chief hardware architect for Penguin Computing (Fremont, Calif.).
“We have way too many voltages generated by power supplies, so motherboard designs get backed into a corner where you get lots of weird power distributions that are very inefficient,” he said, suggesting the 12V-only supplies might hit efficiency levels of 93 percent or higher.
Not everyone is bullish on the trend. Supermicro (San Jose) is delivering 12V-only servers on a card for use in server blade systems, but it has no plans for 12V-only motherboards because its customers need boards with multiple power levels to support other devices in a rack, said Douglas Herz, a marketing manager with the company.
Supermicro is a proponent of more efficient power supplies through work of the group. Herz noted that group now lists nearly 1,000 multiple output supplies that meet its efficiency requirements, but only about five single-output supplies.
Beyond the motherboard, Google may be working on interconnect technology that links servers into clusters. Today Gbit Ethernet and Infiniband are widely used in x86 clusters, replacing what had been dominant but proprietary technologies developed by OEMs and a handful of suppliers such as Myricom and Quadrics.
“There were discussions in the company about possibly building their own 10Gbit interconnect. I don't know if they designed and built their own interconnect, but they were exploring the possibilities in 2006,” said Randy Katz, a professor of computer science at U.C. Berkeley who worked at the search giant while on a sabbatical. — Rick Merritt