HP debuts ultra-thin blade servers

Hewlett-Packard Co. launched a suite of ultra-thin or “blade” servers last 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.

Blades also consolidate power cords and other cabling over a common backplane, making it easier for users to physically manage them, according to HP.

The servers can be specialized for particular tasks, such as Web hosting, media streaming, encryption or file storage – or management of other servers, depending on their hardware design or the software installed.

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 upfront costs of blades now – in the midst of a poor economy – but with an eye to cutting real estate costs down the road.

However, Weiner said penetrating that market only marks the beginning of a new market force. “We believe they will become more commonplace in years to come for (hosted) applications,” particularly those hosted in the data centres of large corporations across North America.

“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 this month, built around a 700MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processor with 512MB of error checking and correcting memory and a 30GB 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.

Other operating systems and processor configurations will come later: In the first half of 2002, a Windows-Itanium version will ship, followed by a blade based on HP’s PA-RISC processor running HP-UX flavour of the Unix operating system later in the year.