Dell fills out blade connectivity, more to come

Dell Inc. is to unveil an additional connectivity option for its blade server Tuesday, according to a company executive. Dell also expects to announce further connectivity plug-ins shortly as part of the company’s ongoing strategy to reposition blades as general purpose servers.

The company will begin selling McData Corp.’s 4314 Fibre Channel switch for its Dell PowerEdge 1855 blade on Tuesday, according to Tim Golden, Dell’s director of PowerEdge server marketing. The switch will enable the blade to connect to storage hardware and integrate with SAN (storage area network) fabrics. A single switch will cost from US$8,999 and will include four short wave SFP (small form factor pluggable) optical transceivers.

One area where Dell still lags the competition — IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. — is in its lack of support for switching technology from networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., Golden admitted. He expects that situation to be remedied shortly. Also in the near term, Dell is looking at including non-SCSI (small computer systems interface) drives and adding in support for serial ATA (advanced technology attachment), according to Golden.

With the addition of the McData switch to its blade plug-ins, Dell will now be able to offer customers two fabric switches since it already provides Brocade Communications Systems Inc.’s Silkworm 3014 switch. Golden estimates that it will be a 50/50 split between Dell customers opting for McData and those choosing Brocade. Dell prices both the McData and the Brocade switches around $300 per port less than what’s offered by other blade vendors, according to a Dell spokesman, as part and parcel of the company’s plan to drive down blade costs.

“Our goal is to take blades to a volume market,” Golden said. “We want to specifically position them as general purpose servers.” He explained that Dell’s design of its blades reflects that strategy. “The [blade’s] feature set is identical to all our eighth generation servers with the 64-bit Xeon processor,” Golden added. “For us, it’s about sameness and likeness, not about difference.”

Lance Levanthal, editor of the BladeLetter, an e-newsletter for independent, nonprofit vendor organization the Blade Systems Alliance, agreed with Golden that blades will become ubiquitous. “I think blades are going to be everywhere,” he said. “It’s not revolutionary, it’s just an improved form factor. I think everyone will use them for everything.”

For the time being, though, blades continue to be mostly used in the high performance computing arena, but Golden expects that to change rapidly. “We see them being used as application servers, for consolidation, for file and print, for OLTP [online transaction processing] in databases,” he said. “If moving blades as general-purpose servers does cannibalize the existing market [for Dell servers], that’s okay.”

BladeLetter’s Levanthal pointed out that the blade market is still at a comparatively early stage. “Most shops don’t have blades,” he said. “The numbers aren’t large; a good sized blade installation is 100. My feeling is that the numbers are going to increase very rapidly.”

The PowerEdge 1855 blade is Dell’s second generation of blades and shipped in November 2004. Golden admitted that its predecessor, the Pentium III-based PowerEdge 1655MC was “a brick rather than a blade,” but proved a very useful learning tool for Dell as how to better design the PowerEdge 1855 blade.

Dell grew its share of the 2P (two-processor) x86 global market substantially in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the fourth quarter of 2004, Golden said. Dell sees the 2P market as the sweet spot for blades, but Golden didn’t rule out the company offering a four-processor or a one-socket blade in the future.

However, Levanthal is so far unconvinced of Dell’s vaunted success in the market. “I’ve seen no evidence of them making any inroads,” he said. “All the big volume customers are either HP or IBM. So far, Dell’s impact has been very, very minimal. I don’t think they’ve figured it out yet.”

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