Market waits for blade breakthrough

Two years after vendors began introducing slimmed down “blade” computers as the next stage in the evolution of the server, these denser, more power-efficient servers have been struggling to meet market expectations and prove that they have what it takes to emerge as an industry standard.

In fact, the last couple of years have been downright rocky for blades. The dot-com-fuelled Web serving market they were first aimed at has shrunk, and the IT market in general has grown much more conservative in its approach toward new technology.

Still, as far as analysts and blade vendors are concerned, the question is not whether these new servers will take off, but when.

Their confidence is understandable because, in principle, the blade concept makes a great deal of sense. The idea is to strip down the servers in a server farm to their bare essentials: removing the CD-ROM, video processor and keyboard connection and having the power and cooling supplied by a separate enclosure, so that the blade servers can be slid in and out of specialized enclosures like books in a bookshelf.

In theory, you have servers that are less expensive to produce, take up less space, and require less power.

In reality, you have a brand new architecture with benefits that have been harder to prove in practice.

This is why blade sales have fallen short of analyst expectations. In 2001, IDC predicted that 67,000 of the slimmed-down servers would be sold the following year, creating a US$148 million market. The industry research firm was bullish about blade growth, forecasting sales of $4.5 billion by 2005.

By the time 2002 was over, however, vendors shipped 40 percent fewer blades than IDC had expected, and tallied just $100 million in sales, almost $50 million less than expected.

“The market fell apart,” said Alan Freedman, research manager with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. Two factors led to this. There was a “lack of spending on the customer” side and “research and development took longer to get products out than they (the vendors) were expecting,” he explained.

There is another reason for the lack of growth, according to another analyst.

“I don’t think the vendors have made a compelling argument of what these things are good for,” said Gartner Inc. analyst John Enck, who said that despite their best efforts to promote the blade concept as a simple step beyond rack-mounted computing, these new servers have yet to be accepted as general purpose machines.

One problem is pricing, Enck said. While blade systems have a price performance advantage when they are deployed in large systems, their costs are too high in configurations of less than 10 servers. “These things are just too expensive,” he observed. “There’s no reason for blades to be premium priced, other than (the vendors) can get away with it.”

For some, the decision to go with blades was less price driven than feature driven. The University of British Columbia has bought two shelves fitted with Sun Microsystems Inc. blades (about 20 in all) as part of its overall data centre renewal project. “We were interested in computing cycles on demand,” said Dave Amos, associate director of IT services at UBC. Using blades fit nicely into UBC’s notion of being able to expand on short notice.

At the university, certain departments use a lot of computing power infrequently. Though not fully installed yet, the overall hope at UBC is for an “effective, low cost, expandable infrastructure” where network administrators will be able to provision servers and move them “from one network or app to another,” he said. Full deployment of the blades is expected by the end this year, Amos said.

Analysts also say that the complexity of blade computing – with few standards in the areas of backplanes, management software, or even blade form factors – is holding it back.

Not all users agree with the analysts, however.

“That’s typical analyst stuff,” said John Knuff, vice-president of network engineering with New York-based financial trading systems company NYFIX Inc. The firm is using blades to host high-availability servers in its data centres that are running securities transactions. “I’ve never seen any new technology come out that didn’t have a steep learning curve. It takes you a few months or a year to be good at it, just like anything else.”

Amos agreed. “There is always a learning curve,” he said.