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Scaling Up vs. Scaling Out: Hidden Costs

In My Scaling Hero, I described the amazing scaling story of It's impressive by any measure, but also particularly relevant to us because we're on the Microsoft stack, too. I was intrigued when Markus posted this recent update:

Last monday we upgraded our core database server after a power outage knocked the site offline. I haven't touched this machine since 2005 so it was a major undertaking to do it last minute. We upgraded from a machine with 64 GB of ram and 8 CPUs to a HP ProLiant DL785 with 512 GB of ram and 32 CPUs ...

The HP ProLiant DL785 G5 starts at $16,999 -- and that's barebones, with nothing inside. Fully configured, as Markus describes, it's kind of a monster:

  • 7U size (a typical server is 2U, and mainstream servers are often 1U)
  • 8 CPU sockets
  • 64 memory sockets
  • 16 drive bays
  • 11 expansion slots
  • 6 power supplies

It's unclear if they bought it pre-configured, or added the disks, CPUs, and memory themselves. The most expensive configuration shown on the HP website is $37,398 and that includes only 4 processors, no drives, and a paltry 32 GB memory. When topped out with ultra-expensive 8 GB memory DIMMs, 8 high end Opterons, 10,000 RPM hard drives, and everything else -- by my estimates, it probably cost closer to $100,000. That might even be a lowball number, considering that the DL785 submitted to the TPC benchmark website (pdf) had a "system cost" of $186,700. And that machine only had 256 GB of RAM. (But, to be fair, that total included another major storage array, and a bunch of software.)

At any rate, let's assume $100,000 is a reasonable ballpark for the monster server Markus purchased. It is the very definition of scaling up -- a seriously big iron single server.

But what if you scaled out, instead -- Hadoop or MapReduce style, across lots and lots of inexpensive servers? After some initial configuration bumps, I've been happy with the inexpensive Lenovo ThinkServer RS110 servers we use. They're no match for that DL785 -- but they aren't exactly chopped liver, either:

Lenovo ThinkServer RS110 barebones $600
8 GB RAM $100
2 x eBay drive brackets $50
2 x 500 GB SATA hard drives, mirrored $100
Intel Xeon X3360 2.83 GHz quad-core CPU $300

Grand total of $1,150 per server. Plus another 10 percent for tax, shipping, and so forth. I replace the bundled CPU and memory that the server ships with, and then resell the salvaged parts on eBay for about $100 -- so let's call the total price per server $1,200.

Now, assuming a fixed spend of $100,000, we could build 83 of those 1U servers. Let's compare what we end up with for our money:

  Scaling Up Scaling Out
CPUs 32 332
RAM 512 GB 664 GB
Disk 4 TB 40.5 TB

Now which approach makes more sense?

(These numbers are a bit skewed because that DL785 is at the absolute extreme end of the big iron spectrum. You pay a hefty premium for fully maxxing out. It is possible to build a slightly less powerful server with far better bang for the buck.)

But there's something else to consider: software licensing.

  Scaling Up Scaling Out
OS $2,310 $33,200*
SQL $8,318 $49,800*

(If you're using all open source software, then of course these costs will be very close to zero. We're assuming a Microsoft shop here, with the necessary licenses for Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008.)

Now which approach makes more sense?

What about the power costs? Electricity and rack space isn't free.

  Scaling Up Scaling Out
Peak Watts 1,200w 16,600w
Power Cost / Year $1,577 $21,815

Now which approach makes more sense?

I'm not picking favorites. This is presented as food for thought. There are at least a dozen other factors you'd want to consider depending on the particulars of your situation. Scaling up and scaling out are both viable solutions, depending on what problem you're trying to solve, and what resources (financial, software, and otherwise) you have at hand.

That said, I think it's fair to conclude that scaling out is only frictionless when you use open source software. Otherwise, you're in a bit of a conundrum: scaling up means paying less for licenses and a lot more for hardware, while scaling out means paying less for the hardware, and a whole lot more for licenses.

* I have no idea if these are the right prices for Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008, because reading about the licensing models makes my brain hurt. If anything, it could be substantially more.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: