GARDEN GROVE, Calif. -- Blade server advocates convened in Southern California last week to discuss the server density revolution. Industry representatives and IT pros examined the effect this fast-growing server form factor is going to have on the data center.
Single vendor standardization
From the IT pros in attendance at this conference, one thing came across very clear: IT shops are standardizing on one platform for blades -- for better or worse.
Lance Ware, CEO and chief technology officer at Anaheim, Calif., digital media company SyncCast, said supporting a common hardware platform has made his job a lot easier to manage server inventory.
"It limits the number of spare [servers] we needed to have. It was very hard to keep spare parts before," Ware said. "It also minimizes the learning curve for someone on staff to bring others up to speed."
Ware downsized SyncCast's server footprint by a factor of 2 to 1 using Dell blades. The company has remote data centers in Asia and Europe where space is very limited, as well as a facility in Southern California.
"Certainly you're paying more [for blades] than 1U servers, but it's paid off for us," Ware said. But there are drawbacks.
Ware said blades often have a slower upgrade cycle than rack-mounted hardware. Plus, the reselling market is small for used blade servers. "There's not a lot of market for this stuff," Ware said. "It's pretty hard to move this equipment and makes transitioning more challenging for many companies."
Another complaint is that the internal Ethernet switches don't seem as robust as external switches from Cisco Systems Inc. and others.
When asked what he would have done differently, Ware said early adopters often paid the price of new technologies. He might have waited for the next generation of blades. "There were not a lot of choices two and a half years ago," Ware said. "I'm not sure if there was a better choice at the time."
Other attendees also specified on single-vendor platforms, including Kyle Ohme, director of IT at Freeze.com, a Waite Park, Minn.-based screensaver graphics company. Ohme said his organization standardized on all IBM BladeCenter offerings.
Craig Newell, director of utility computing at TranTech Inc., a consulting firm working on a consolidation project for the U.S. Census Bureau, said the Census Bureau standardized on two platforms, IBM's BladeCenter and blades from Marlborough, Mass.-based Egenera for the Census Bureau's higher performance applications.
State of the blade
According to Anil Vasudeva, president of Imex Research, blade servers will grow to 34% of all server shipments by 2009. During a keynote, Vasudeva said IBM is way ahead in market share at 39% with Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) trailing at 32%. Dell Inc. has come out of nowhere at 9.7%, Fujitsu and NEC Solutions Inc. account for about 5% of the market. IBM also leads in technology choices with Intel and AMD power-based blades, as well as multiple operating systems, including Microsoft, AIX, Sun Solaris and Linux; and it also has three chassis offerings -- BladeCenter, BladeCenter T (telco and rugged deployments) and BladeCenter H (for high speed). Vasudeva said IBM is cheaper than HP on the average selling price and Dell is cheaper than both.
Speaking of pricing, attendees wanted to know why blades -- a smaller form factor --cost more than 1U servers. According to Doug Balog, vice president of blades for IBM, that is not a complete analysis. Balog said the true cost of deploying a 1U server needs to include redundant management, power, keyboard-video-mouse adapters and networking infrastructure. Balog said blades are a lot less expensive when you look at the total cost. Despite assurances of return on investment, attendees grumbled that it's the capital expenses that often drive decisions.
Big Blue was the 800-pound gorilla at the event with the other server vendors conspicuously absent, so IBM got to tout its vision for the forward deployment of blade servers. A big part of IBM's strategy for blades has to deal with getting them out of the data center and into retail stores, banks and other facilities that need compute power but don't have the skills or facilities to support a data center.
Applications for self-checkout, video surveillance, radio frequency identification, Voice over Internet Protocol and other data are demanding on-site servers. Companies can preconfigure these packages and roll them out while the technology is still fresh. It's a way to fit a lot of technology in one box, use one rollout scheme and one management to control it. There are still things that belong in the data center though, and it remains to be seen how these technologies are going to work out.
Blade servers = heavy metal
Almost every conversation I heard about blades inevitably turned to power and cooling. But something you hear less often is the problem with weight. Steve Wada, an IBM xSeries/BladeCenter technical sales guy, has been on the ground the last few years, meeting with customers and living in the real world. He was a pinch hitter at the conference, speaking for someone who couldn't attend, and he offered one of the most practical sessions I attended.
Wada told the cautionary tale of the University of New Mexico's high-performance computing center. It was built on the second floor of an old Cadillac dealership with offices below. A secretary noticed a crack in the ceiling above her desk from the massive weight of the blades above. Wada said the facility now has four jack bars holding up the second floor.
You can't cheat physics -- and according to Wada, a fully populated blade rack weighs nearly a ton. "It sounds silly until you can't do it. Most people run into the power and cooling issue first," Wada said. "Hopefully, you know what you bought [with a raised floor] and it's rated by a building standards code."
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