A client is considering some options for serious deployment of some CPU intensive work. The options that are being considered include cloud computing (Amazon EC2 ), virtual machines (Slicehost  and Linode ), and purchasing servers to install in racks at various locations. I can’t disclose the criteria that will determine when each of those three options will be used (I expect that we will end up using all of them). But my research on the prices of various servers will hopefully be useful to someone.
For the server vendor I chose Dell. I believe that HP offers slightly better quality hardware than Dell, but they cost more and are more difficult to deal with (I can’t even get a price online). For this project I will be using a bunch of redundant servers (in a similar concept to the Google server array) so I’m not going to be overly bothered about losing a server occasionally – therefore the slight benefit that HP offers for reliability does not make up for the expense.
Dell has some 1RU servers that have two CPU sockets and allow eight CPU cores. It seems that the best value that Dell offers for a server without RAID (the entire server is redundant) is a PowerEdge SC1435 that has two Opteron 2352 quad-core CPUs running at 2.1GHz, 4G of RAM, a 1TB SATA disk, and a Broadcom PCIe Gig-e card for $3,816.50. That machine gives an option of 2.3GHz CPUs for an extra $621.50, I am not sure that increasing the clock speed by almost 10% for a 16% increase in system price is a good idea.
The second best option was a PowerEdge 1950 III that has two Xeon E5420 2.5GHz quad-core CPUs with 12M of cache, 4G of RAM and a 1TB SATA disk for $4,302.30. The Intel option has 3 years of support included while the AMD option included 1 year of support and needed at least an extra $990 for 3 years of support. So it seems that if 3 years of support is desired then the Intel based server becomes significantly cheaper and is probably a better option.
Dell’s 2RU and 4RU servers are of no interest if you want CPU performance. The 2RU servers only support two processors and the 4RU servers only support four processors. So it’s a ratio of 2 processors per RU for 1RU servers vs one processor per RU for 2RU and 4RU servers, and the 2RU and 4RU servers are a lot more expensive too.
I am investigating the Dell blade server. Blade servers are great for CPU density and good for management. The Dell blade enclosure M1000e takes 10RU of space and supports 16 half-height blades or 8 full-height blades. The Dell M905 blade supports four AMD quad-core processors for a total of 128 cores in 10RU, there are also half-height blades that support two quad-core processors for the same CPU density.
So in terms of CPU density it’s an average of 12.8 cores per RU for the blade server vs 8 cores per RU for 1RU servers. While I haven’t got a complete price yet, it seems that four CPUs suitable for the M905 will cost about as much as four 1RU servers. So the 1RU systems are definitely better value for money than the blade server. The difference is the management cost. N servers that have two CPUs will be more work than N/2 servers that have four CPUs, but on the other hand blade servers require some specialised skills to run them (which I don’t have) and that might also cause problems. I don’t think that blades will be part of this project.