HP debuts blade servers

Hewlett-Packard Co. launched a suite of ultra-thin or “blade” servers earlier this month, earning it a head start in a market that industry analysts say could measure in the billions by 2005.

Blade servers run complete on a single circuit board. They’re flatter and more compact than other servers, so much so that several of them can be inserted into a compact chassis sharing a single bus and power supply. This enables customers to run a larger number of servers in the smallest possible space.

Although a number of smaller, start-up firms (including the now defunct Ottawa-based firm Rebel.com Inc.) have staked their reputations on blades in the past, with dubious results, this marks the first time a major hardware vendor has made them available on open standards, said Lorne Weiner, business manager for Unix servers at HP Canada.

For now, HP is targeting blades to telecoms and service providers. “(Those) customers … quantify their productivity by square inch or (server) rack space. Very often, time to revenue will be the difference between profitability and loss,” Weiner said.

Given that “the (service providers) and telcos are marketplaces that were particularly hard hit in the last year,” Weiner said they’ll be more receptive to incurring the up-front costs of blades now – in the midst of a poor economy – but with an eye to cutting real estate costs down the road.

“People have been looking forward to them coming out,” said Alan Freedman, servers and storage research manager at IDC Canada in Toronto. “There’s less real estate, less management and less resources allotted to it. So it’s the right story for this time.”

Freedman said letting customers enhance their infrastructure capability by offering them storage and networking blades, for instance, is crucial. “This is where the real benefit comes in,” he said.

IDC estimates the market for blades will reach US$2.9 billion by 2005. IDC also estimates that by 2005, the blade unit design will have captured approximately 23 per cent of entry-level server unit sales and 10 per cent of entry-level server revenue.

The first model, the bc1100 blade server, will ship in volume in January, built around a 700 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processor with 512 MB of error checking and correcting memory and a 30 GB hard disk. Customers can have any operating system they like pre-installed on the hot-swappable card – as long as it’s Linux.

They will have a choice of the Red Hat Inc., SuSE Linux AG or Debian distributions. The basic blade will sell for $3,020. HP will sell a basic system consisting of a bh7800 blade server chassis, one management blade and one bc1100 server blade running Linux for $11,814.