Power’s the thing at Server Blade Summit

The Wyndham San Jose hotel got a taste this week of some of the power management issues that may be facing blade users in the next few years, as the hotel played host to the Server Blade Summit conference. As executives from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. talked about the growing importance of power management in blade computing, the Wyndam’s power supply flickered on and off, taxed to the maximum by demonstration blade systems running in the hotel.

“We have run out of power probably at least ten times already,” said Lance Leventhal, program chair of the Server Blade Summit, who attributed the blackouts to the fact that instead of showing prototypes as in years past, vendors were running racks of working blade equipment at the conference this week.

Though they amounted to little more than a diversion at the conference, the hotel’s problems underscored an issue that blade vendors say will become critical to the industry in the next few years: power consumption.

Blades were developed as a way to fit a larger number of servers into a smaller space than the rack-mounted servers that presently dominate most server farms. By sliding the blades into a common enclosure that simplified network and power cabling, a very large number of blades could be fitted into a standard 19-inch server rack.

Initially, blade pioneers like RLX Technologies Inc. looked to low-power processors to help prevent such densely packed servers from overheating, but as blade designs evolved, clever engineering by the server vendors made blades more efficient in dissipating heat, and the amount of power required by blade processors became less of an issue.

But with two- and four-processor blade systems expected to grow in popularity over the next 18 months, power consumption is again on the minds of hardware vendors. “Two to four processors on a (blade) board will be delivered soon by many manufacturers and the memory complement will be in the area of 4GB to 16GB of RAM,” said Frank Schwartz, a senior staff member with the office of the chief technology officer for Sun’s Volume Systems group, during a Wednesday keynote. “This is a pretty impressive jump in board power. It’s a pretty impressive jump in a lot of things, particularly power consumption.”

Customers are handling some of the heat generated by blades by carefully designing the air flow in their data centres, and they are now becoming more interested in lowering their air conditioning costs than the price of hardware, said James Mouton, the vice-president of HP’s Industry Standard Servers Platform division.

HP has developed power calculator tools that help customers estimate and manage power consumption, but Mouton said chip makers also have a role to play in cooling down blade systems. “Everyone’s life would get a lot easier if the processor power dropped by 50 per cent and maintained performance,” he said.

HP and Sun are both readying blade servers based on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s (AMD) Opteron processor, according to Schwartz and Mouton. However, neither executive would confirm whether their companies planned to use AMD’s recently announced low-power Opteron HE or Opteron EE processors in their blade lines. The Opteron HE and Opteron EE consume 55 and 30 watts of power, respectively, far less than standard Opteron chips, which burn more than 80 watts each.

Mouton said that his company also planned to release an Itanium 2-based blade system, but declined to say whether or not it would be based on Intel’s low power “Deerfield” Itanium chip, which consumes 62 watts.

The low-power Opterons would be a good fit for both Sun and HP, said Nathan Brookwood an analyst with the Insight64 research firm. “They would make a lot of sense in a blade environment,” he said. “I really think that was one of the factors that drove them in an Opteron direction.”

Blades accounted for four per cent of the worldwide server market in 2003, according to International Data Corp. The research firm expects that number to jump to 27 per cent by 2007, when the blade market is expected to reach US$7.1 billion in sales. In 2003, IDC estimated the size of the blade market at US$622 million on sales of 185,000 servers.

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