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Blade runners

Aug 16, 20049 mins
Computers and PeripheralsData CenterIBM

Early adopters of blade server technology say the benefits aren’t science fiction.

Two years ago, United Title in Westlake Village, Calif., was looking for a load balancer and some Web servers to support a new e-commerce application it was getting ready to launch. The company ended up with a two-fer: a system from load-balancing specialist F5 Networks that just happened to be integrated into blade servers from HP .

“We didn’t have to go out and buy a separate F5 appliance,” says Peter Bowman, CIO of Nations Holding Group, which owns the title and escrow services firm. “The F5 solution within the BL10e [blade servers ] allowed us to create an environment for the eBusiness infrastructure, and we didn’t have to worry about sizing it because you could expand [the number of blade servers] quickly.”

Bowman initially brought in 20 blade servers, and today he has 40 in the Equinix data center  where he collocates his servers. “We’re saving easily probably $20,000 a year, and that’s just on rack cost and electricity,” he says. “That’s not counting savings in employee time.”

United Title is an example of a company that got in on the blade server movement early, but analysts say more companies now are turning to blades.

The slimmed-down servers were introduced in 2001 with great expectations: Blades were expected to change the computing landscape. But that hasn’t come to pass – yet. The slow economy hit the service provider market the blade vendors initially targeted, and enterprise customers tightened their purse strings and pulled back from new technology deployments.

In the past 12 months, however, with major server vendors such as HP, IBM and Sun squarely behind blade technology – and users recognizing the space savings, flexibility and scalability benefits – all that is beginning to change. Even Dell , whose support of the blade market has been cool since it introduced its first, and only, blade in 2002, plans to release a new blade system by year-end.

“The market is quickly expanding beyond early adopters in the high-performance and technical computing niche as vendors tap into their large installed bases of corporate customers,” IDC analysts wrote in an April report on the blade market. “Vendor expectations for blades continue to be extremely positive, and 2004 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for blade adoption; it is expected that the market will undergo a shift from early adopters to more mainstream users.”

The research firm expects the blade market to explode in the next few years, growing from about $600 million in revenue last year to nearly $9 billion in 2008.

The growing momentum is already apparent. In 2002, just 39,000 blade servers were shipped, accounting for less than 1% of the entire server market. Last year, that number jumped to 185,000 shipments, or 3.5% of the market. IDC expects blade servers will make up about 40% of the server market in the U.S. by 2006.

Better integration coming

But what will drive this growth? Analysts say blades still largely are relegated to high-performance and technical computing deployments. But they say enhanced management tools, virtualization capabilities, and better network and storage integration combined with a growing interest from users in modular, scale-out computing – where multiple smaller boxes are tied together to act as a single resource – will help push these systems into corporate data centers.

United Title’s Bowman says he uses blades as a platform for Web server farms and runs network monitoring utilities and management reports. He says he’s looking to move everything – including databases and Exchange servers – to blades eventually.

First, the company is working on creating a storage-area network  environment, which will enable better virtualization of the blades because of the networked storage capabilities, he says. As a result, Bowman is looking for higher-processing systems and is considering HP’s high-performance p-class blades.

“Over time, I expect blades to largely replace two-processor types of high-density servers,” says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. “Just as rack-mount systems displaced tower systems for most sizes of installations, I see blades replacing rack-mount systems.”

But analysts acknowledge that challenges remain. Blades still carry a price premium, costing about 10% more than comparable 1U servers, according to Gartner, which notes that the more blades deployed, the better the ROI. However, when dozens of these scaled down servers are deployed in small spaces, cooling needs become more demanding. Another issue is standardization; there are few standards today when it comes to blade systems.

“Blades have many more steps to take to become a stable investment,” says Jane Wright, a research director at Gartner. “So much will change in the next few years. Today, every vendor has a different format and a different backplane and different management software. This is a risky environment to invest your beefy business applications in.”

Wright adds that blades are a good technology to start investigating and piloting now, “but don’t go betting your business on blades at this point. Wait a couple more years.”

Gartner expects blade server standardization efforts to pick up by 2006.

Standardization and integration

Vendors are working in that direction. IBM and Intel  are pushing a de facto standard blade design. Other vendors aren’t signing up for the effort, however. Darrel Ward, manager for product server planning at Dell, says standards will be important but that Dell isn’t interested in the Intel/IBM blade project.

“This year we’ll focus our blades on standards that exist like the Intelligent Platform Management Initiative and using industry standard technology chipsets and memory drives and things like that,” he says.

“Long term, standardization around I/O and some aspects of management, such as how a chassis discovers the components that are in it, will be important. The best example of a standard that we’d like to emulate with blades is around PCI,” he adds.

With standards, customers will have the ability to choose among vendors, thus driving down overall costs Ward says.

Other vendors are likely to follow that course. HP wouldn’t be specific about its plans in this area, but executives say that integrating all the pieces – servers, networks and storage – is important.

“HP has a deep relationship with Cisco,” says Rick Becker, group manager blades for the enterprise storage and servers group at HP. “We’re investigating opportunities of how we can work closer together around blades. . . . We’ve absolutely got to partner with switch vendors and enable our customers to manage their networks and storage in addition to their servers.”

David Nelson-Gal, vice president of N1 Systems at Sun, says users can expect enhancements to storage and network connectivity available in Sun’s blade servers as Sun takes advantage of virtual switching technology it acquired from multifunction switch vendor Nauticus Networks and storage switch maker Pirus.

Bowman adds that integrated network and storage connectivity from third-party vendors would be a definite plus for his network.

Today, HP, like most systems vendors, offers integrated switching capabilities, but requires pass-through boards or other approaches to connect into the existing network infrastructure.

Bowman originally bought an integrated Ethernet switch from HP, but decided to scrap it in favor of a patch panel in order to hook into his Cisco network architecture.

“There is a lot to be said for keeping standards in your network,” Bowman says. “The language was just such a barrier when you’re used to dealing with Cisco’s IOS and programming. I definitely think an integrated Cisco switch in the back infrastructure would be a strong thing.” Bowman says he has the same concerns when it comes to storage connectivity.

Integrating network technology into blades is the route IBM is taking. Earlier this year, Big Blue announced that it had embedded Brocade’s Fibre Channel switch and Cisco’s Intelligent Gigabit Ethernet Switch Module into BladeCenter.

No matter the approach, the key focus behind the deeper integration is all about enabling users to create a virtual pool of resources that can be managed and provisioned simply, and can fit easily into the overall data center picture, analysts and vendors say. That will position blades to be a more critical platform in any data center. That means blade management tools will continue to be enhanced as well.

“Where it’s going to get interesting is as these [blades] become increasingly complex, the management requirements become increasingly complex – things like virtualization, more in-house tools, and I’d also expect to see [independent software vendors] like Veritas getting further into this space,” says Charles King, an analyst with the Sageza Group.

Management matters

Already, management  software is a key factor in differentiating among the vendors.

It was RLX Technologies’ management tools that helped drive 7ticks IT Consulting in Chicago to choose RLX over HP and IBM. Dan Stivers, CEO at the company, which works with the financial trading marketplace, says uptime and reliability is critical for his business and RLX’s Control Tower software has let him move to blades sooner than he thought.

“Their real secret sauce is their management software,” he says. “The time we save on the back end for system administration is tremendous.”

Scott Farrand, vice president of systems engineering at RLX, says the next focus for RLX will be making its management tools more automated, “so it’s less labor-intensive.”

For Harry Williams, director of technology and systems at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., management tools that enable virtualization are critical.

Williams has used IBM blade servers for about a year to run distance-learning applications. He likes the integrated Cisco switch and says enhanced management tools will make it even easier to virtualize the blade environment and move workloads among bladed systems. He says he’s looking to expand his use of blades to support grid projects, streaming media and network management.

“We see all these things as giving us significantly more features that we’re going to be able to take advantage of when it comes to blades,” he says.