Dell goes big on blade servers

Dell Inc.’s recent enterprise push into the blade servers space — a relatively immature market — is a strong sign that enterprises are seeing the value of blades within the datacentre.

The Round Rock, Tex.-based firm last month took the wraps off its new blade server, the PowerEdge 1855. The new blades (based on Intel Corp.’s Xeon microprocessor) are housed in a new Dell-designed 7U chassis that can accommodate as many as 10 dual-processor servers. According to Paul Gottsegen vice-president, worldwide enterprise marketing for Dell, the servers will also support 10Gbps Ethernet networking technology as well as the power requirements anticipated from Intel’s next generation of Xeon processors currently slated for next year release.

Gottsegen said the servers share common networking, power and cooling components, enabling enterprises to fit as many as 62 per cent more servers into datacentre racks. The new blades can be managed with Dell OpenManage 4 systems management software or with other integrated third party tools, According to Gottesegen, the physical consolidation of associated rack cables with blades can lower the number of cables by as much as 70 per cent.

According to Toronto-based IT research firm IDC Canada Ltd., the blade market is expected to grow significantly in 2005 and 2006. Alan Freedman, infrastructure hardware research manager for IDC Canada said Dell’s move into blades is a signal that the company now sees this space as a volume play. Freedman said Dell was waiting in the wings as the other companies such as IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and and Sun Microsystems Inc. created awareness and demand for blades, and these vendors are now focused on the market segment for future server volume growth.

Though his company has yet to take possession of Dell’s new servers, Darrin Hyrup, director of operations with Mythic Entertainment Inc., said the 1855 appears to be powerful enough to be a viable alternative to rack systems. With almost all of the space in its datacentre currently being used, the company is looking at blades to enhance performance. Although blade servers take up less data centre space than do traditional rack-mounted servers, the extreme density of the blade architecture has forced some blade designs to use cooler, less powerful processors. The 1855, however, uses the same processor as the its 1U rack counterpart. “We were waiting for the technology to mature,” Hyrup said. “Up until recently, we weren’t sure we were going to get the performance and space gains we had wanted.”

Mythic is also interested in evaluating a low-power version of the 1855, which is expected within a few months. Hyrup said he expects the new blade to have significantly lower power requirements than the 1855, which draws approximately 15 per cent less power than the 1850. “This will allow us to expand our services without having to buy a lot more real estate,” he said. Mythic expects to standardize on a blade architecture by 2006.

There is a reason why blade servers account for less than five per cent of the overall server market, Gottsegen said, It is not cost considerations but rather that most enterprises have been relatively content with the capabilities of existing 1U rack-mount servers. According to Gottsegen, the 1855 uses the same processor as the 1U rack counterpart.

One major issue, however, is the fact that the new blade chassis does not yet support switching technology from Cisco Systems Inc., said John Enck, a research vice president at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. Support for this technology is expected by early 2005. However, until that happens, it may make these systems less appealing to enterprise customers, who would have to do more work to integrate the systems into their Cisco environments, Enck said.

On the large enterprise level, the current challenge in large blade installations within the datacentre is the issue of heat dissipation. According to Freedman, the value proposition for blades is ease of management as well as the smaller footprint gains in physical space.

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