Blade server switch market in flux

While some network vendors are jumping out of the blade server market, others are expanding their reach into blade systems with new partnerships.

Nortel this week said it will spin off its Blade Server Switch Business Unit as the start-up Blade Network Technologies, which will focus solely on building network switches for blade chassis.

Also this week, Dell said it would start offering Cisco Gigabit Ethernet switch modules in its PowerEdge blade servers, in addition to Dell’s own PowerConnect blade server switches.

Observers say vendors’ varying positions in the blade server market result partly from the debate over where network intelligence should reside — in servers or network gear.

Blade server switch modules typically offer four to 24 Fast or Gigabit Ethernet ports. The modules occupy a slot in a blade server chassis, providing interconnectivity for server blade nodes or connections to network devices outside the blade server chassis. This latter role is more prevalent, as server vendors integrate Ethernet as the backplane fabric technology, connecting server blades internally in a self-contained LAN.

One expert says installing LAN switch blades into a blade server chassis is a logical continuation of the blade server’s main role: consolidation.

“Instead of having lots of boxes stacked up, you have one chassis in which you put in many CPU blades,” says Dan Golding, a Burton Group analyst. “To tie together what are essentially computers, you need some kind of network backplane. That’s what you get out of having an integrated Ethernet switch.”

Analyst firms do not break out shipments of Ethernet ports as blade server switch modules, so the size of this sub-market is hard to gauge. Nortel says it has more than 52,000 blade server switches deployed. The blade server market as a whole is expected to reach US$10 billion by 2009, up from $2 billion last year, IDC says.

Users say putting switches inside blade simplifies cable management and provides more options for server failover. IBM BladeCenter chassis used at the North Carolina Department of Revenue’s data centre have Nortel Layer 2 and Layer 3 switch modules installed. The Nortel blade connects the server blades with redundant links. Dennis Fox, network specialist for the Department of Revenue, says this is a much easier configuration to manage than handling linking blades to an external LAN switch.

“You might as well just have racks of 1U [single-rack-unit] servers if you’re going to do that.”

While Nortel distances itself from the blade server market with its new spinoff, Cisco appears to be reaching for a hold in blade server chassis with its recent Dell partnership and last year’s acquisition of TopSpin, which offers Fibre Channel storage blades for IBM blade severs.

Industry observers say converting network service modules into blade server cards would take away from network vendors’ core business: selling large chassis filled with high-function line cards. Plus, switch vendors say customer demand is not there yet.

“When [customers] go to a large blade server implementation, they still prefer to have our box outside the blade chassis itself,” says F5 Networks CEO John McAdam. F5 makes blades that run its load balancing, traffic acceleration and security features on blades for HP and IBM chassis. “Our customers spent much more money on us with products that sit outside the blade chassis than inside,” says McAdam.

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