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Blades begin to make their mark

Nov 25, 20026 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

As Dell this week becomes the second major vendor to ship blade servers – Hewlett-Packard was first – customers and industry analysts say they are beginning to see signs of what vendors have promised all along: that the compact machines will revolutionize computer network design.

ROUND ROCK, TEXAS – As Dell this week becomes the second major vendor to ship blade servers – Hewlett-Packard was first – customers and industry analysts say they are beginning to see signs of what vendors have promised all along: that the compact machines will revolutionize computer network design.

Blades offer power and memory similar to that available in typical 1U (1.75-inch-high) servers, but squeeze vertically into chassis, which include cabling, fans and power supplies typically found on individual servers. The chassis fit into racks that can accommodate hundreds of blades, depending on the vendor. So for customers, blades can help to simplify server setups, save space and, with some models, cut down on heat through the use of low-power processors.

Blades are going to be big business, says IDC, which predicts that one in every five servers that ship by 2006 will be blade-based.

Analysts say blade sales could eclipse those of 1U servers, which last year accounted for 45% of rack-optimized servers sold and about one-third of all servers sold.

“The sweet spot for blades in any rack-dense environment is going to be the one- to four-processor server because it’s a more efficient packaging design,” says David Freund, an analyst for Iluminata. “Blades will become the de facto standard.”

Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst with The Yankee Group, agrees. “Blades are going to short circuit and circumvent the 1U market pretty aggressively in late 2004, especially in the large enterprise. It has all the signs of becoming a revolution.”

Outsourcing company Centerbeam in Santa Clara is among the believers.

“Our company is 3 years old, and where we started out with 6U, then 3U, then 1U servers, now we’ve gone to blades,” says Glenn Ricart, Centerbeam’s CTO and a founder. “Each time, we’ve saved on space, power and cabling.”

Centerbeam uses HP’s BL p-Class blades to host back-up activities for its customers.

“Not only will we see the blade server trend continue, but it’s forming the whole basis for a new way servers will be installed,” Ricart says. “Looking forward, the information infrastructure provided by a data center will be cages in which you can install the server blades you need, so the common power supplies will change and the cabling will be replaced by the buses inside the cages.”

TERC, a nonprofit research and development company in Cambridge, Mass., is another early blade customer.

“I am using [blades] to replace older 1U servers and for applications where I would otherwise use 1U servers,” says Carl Alexander, senior systems and network administrator at TERC. “I’ll continue, [though], to buy 1U servers for applications that require more storage, more computing power or both.”

Blades only contain internal storage or connect to network-attached storage, unlike 1U servers, which can attach to external arrays or Fibre Channel-based storage area networks (SANs). Vendors all promise they will support external RAID and SAN storage in upcoming implementations.

TERC runs a DNS server, mail server and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server on blades from RLX Technologies.

TERC is a classic example of the kind of customer that blade makers initially sought, along with carriers and ISPs, in that they require many servers in a small space where overheating of machines is a concern. Early blades from RLX, and companies no longer in the blade business, such as FiberCycle and Racemi, were designed with low-power processors.

With the telecom meltdown, blade makers have extended or entirely shifted their focus to corporate networks’ Web and midtier application servers. The newer blades tend to feature higher-powered processors.

Dell’s new PowerEdge 1655MC is a two-processor Pentium III blade that runs at 1.26 to 1.4 GHz and starts at $1,500. It is comparable to products from HP and on the way from IBM.

Some blades are even finding their way into high-end application environments.

“We have a 240-processor cluster made up of RLX blades that sits in one rack,” says Wu-chun Feng, research and development team leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “It was very important that the [blade’s] power dissipation was low so we could get higher density. We are space-limited in our environment and don’t have a specially cooled machine room.”

While a few vendors, such as Egenera, are targeting high-end data center applications, industry watchers are skeptical about how big a business that will be.

“You might see blades in the back end, but the data center won’t be the sweet spot,” Illuminata’s Freund says. “The back end tends not to be large volumes of servers and more suited for running Oracle 9i RAQ or IBM’s DB2.”

While blades are supposed to be simple, observers say that integrating blades into networks isn’t yet a snap.

“Customers need to be very careful about large-scale investments in blades until there is more of a standard,” Yankee Group’s Gruener says. “The way blades fit in the chassis so that a customer can intermix them needs to be standardized. If you buy a rack in some cases, it needs to be occupied by the same [vendor’s] blades and chassis’.”

Web application hosting company Zapatec in Berkeley, Calif., welcome such heterogeneity.

“The ability to have multiple suppliers [in a rack] for what will hopefully become a commodity would be an enormous benefit to us,” says Ramaswamy Aditya, the company’s CTO.

Another lingering issue regarding blades is management. While blades promise to simplify server management in that vendors typically offer software for provisioning applications across chassis or racks of blades, customers would like to be able to manage blades and other types of servers, regardless of vendors, in a consistent manner. Some vendors, such as Dell and IBM, are off to a fast start in this area.

“We wouldn’t purchase equipment we had to actively manage unless the management interfaces were standards-based,” Aditya says.

Blade sampler

Vendors are offering blade servers, which fit into $1,800 to $3,000 chassis, to run everything from Web applications to data center applications.
VendorProductProcessorNumber of processors/SpeedStorage (G bytes)Number of blades per chassisPrice
Dell PowerEdge 1655 MC Pentium III 2/1.26 – 1.4 GHz 146 6 $1,500
EgeneraBladeFrame Pblade – 2Xeon2/2.2 – 2.8 GHz024$6,900
BladeFrame Pblade – 4Xeon MP4/1.4 – 1.6 GHz024$30,000
HPBL e-ClassPentium III1/700 – 800 GHz30 – 4020$1,800
BL p-ClassPentium III2/1.4 GHz1448$2,540
IBMeServer Xeon2/2 – 2.4 GHz14414$1,880
RLX ServerBlade 1200iPentium III-M1/1.2 GHz12012$1,530
ServerBlade 800iPentium III low-voltage1/800 MHz8024$1,250
ServerBlade 667Transmeta1/677 MHz8024$1,000