Blades try to shake off bad-boy image

This may be the year that blade servers finally cast off their bad rap. Introduced in 2001, blade servers were supposed to change the computing landscape, but questions about reliability, power consumption and heat output put a damper on adoption.

However, with HP and IBM focused on improving the form factor, and Dell and Sun re-entering the market, blades are getting a second look.

In a recent report, IDC analysts called server blades “a growth driver” in the fast-expanding x86 market. Shipments of blade servers grew 52 per cent in the United States in 2005 compared with 2004, as customers worldwide spent US$2.2 billion on the systems, a jump of nearly 81 per cent compared with 2004, according to IDC.

Blades accounted for a small fraction of the overall server market a few years ago, but IDC estimates they will account for 11 per cent of the market this year and about a quarter of the market by 2009.

Part of the reason for the growth is that vendors are making the systems more capable of supporting important business applications. IBM, for example, earlier this year introduced its BladeCenter H chassis with support for InfiniBand and 10G Ethernet.

In addition, IBM announced new blade servers, including a low-power Xeon blade, aimed at appeasing buyers concerned about the heat output associated with packing numerous small systems into tight spaces. Egenera also targeted those heat concerns when it introduced in January a cooling unit called the CoolFrame for its blade-based systems.

Meanwhile, HP last month introduced its next-generation blade servers, the Blade System c-Class, which includes enhanced technologies around virtualization, networking, power and cooling, and systems management. Sun, which scrapped its product line last year, also plans to re-enter the market with Operton-based blades coming soon, Sun executives say.

“Today customers have to make a number of compromises when deploying blades, compromises in I/O throughput and other capabilities. There also are some complexities in managing blades,” says Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 systems at Sun. “Expect our next generation of blades to remove those hurdles. We plan to make our blades look more like standard servers.”

A growing number of enterprise customers are finding benefits in blade offerings. Aegis Mortgage in Houston, for example, decided to standardize on blades about a year and a half ago as a way to deal with data centre space constraints.

Initially, there were some concerns about heat output and whether the servers could support the company’s number-crunching workloads.

“We ran a cook-off test with IBM, Dell and HP, and it was obvious…they were great servers,” says Art Beane, IT enterprise architect at Aegis. “They performed really well with our application suite.”

Aegis chose HP and today has nearly 200, mostly Opteron-based, blades with plans to replace over time the remaining 200 or so rack-mounted severs it has.

Key benefits are the ability to hot-swap servers, should failures occur, and streamlined management using the same HP tools that manage rack-mounted systems, Beane says.

Overall, Beane estimates that by using blades, along with virtualization, Aegis has slowed its growth by about 20 per cent, avoiding the need for a new data centre. “Our cost avoidance works out to probably a couple million dollars,” he says.

Aegis isn’t alone in seeing blade benefits, but analysts say users shouldn’t rush ahead.

“I have a lot of disillusioned customers on blades. I think blades were way overhyped in the last couple of years,” says John Enck, a research vice-president at Gartner. “Though I will say that the technology being introduced this year is very interesting.”

In fact, analysts note that business-focused blade packages, such as IBM’s offerings for the retail and banking industries that integrate blades with storage and networking components, are making the systems more attractive to users.

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