Four years after their inception, blade servers may finally be emerging as a viable enterprise-class platform for corporate data centers.
According to market intelligence firm IDC of Framingham, Mass., the rate at which blades were adopted in 2005 was more than two and a half times that of traditional rack-mounted servers.
Analysts say they expect more organizations to deploy blades in 2006, especially as vendors begin to unveil powerful 10 Gbps backplanes that could enable hosting of more robust applications and services.
Thus far, IBM and Egenera Inc. are the only two blade vendors to offer 10 GB backplanes, although Dell Inc., Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and other vendors are expected to follow suit.
Working with blades
Blade server architectures include chassis, or frames, that contain upward of 10 or 20 blades, depending on the vendor. The arrangement provides flexibility in case defective blades need to be removed or replaced. Backup blades can be quickly inserted and immediately assume the personality of production systems.
"There are two basic environments that are ideal for blades. One would be front-end Web serving in which traffic is easily distributed and where there may be a need to remove and repair one server at a time. The other area would be environments with high-performance computing clusters, which also need the ability to rip and replace, and get back online quickly," said Jane Wright, a research analyst with Stamford, Conn.-Gartner Inc.
Blades also are equipped to share network and storage adaptors with other devices, meaning companies can save money by not having to purchase individual routers, cabling and other hardware as they would with standard servers.
Blades are well suited for midrange applications, such as e-mail or messaging, although experts say bottlenecks are potential threat since blades share connection points with other devices. For example, Gartner says companies should not use blades to host database applications that process a heavy volume of transactions.
Consolidating on blades
Blades enable companies to control the rate at which they scale their server architecture, a feature that is useful in server consolidation and virtualization projects. In fact, those motives are replacing space as the prime reason more companies are investigating blades.
"Companies are looking at easier server management: the ability to wire once for multiple blades instead of wiring every one," said Kelly Quinn, a senior research analyst with IDC. "They are looking at the relative cost savings, depending on the number of blades they deploy."
Cambridge Health Alliance near Boston is consolidating about 50 Windows servers onto various blade servers from Egenera of Marlboro, Mass. The Windows servers are configured as virtual machines that run natively on Linux-powered blades.
Cambridge purchased a full chassis containing 24 individual blades, with about 20 in use and four assigned to a failover pool. Seth Sladek, Cambridge's director of technical services, said the company has consolidated an Exchange e-mail server and five file servers onto individual four-way blades, with an e-mail archive to be rolled out on blades soon.
"We did an ROI [return on investment) and determined that it made more sense to purchase blades, rather than standalone machines. We can load up to 10 virtual machines on one blade, which is cheaper than buying a low-end server, plus all the necessary cabling, network connections, ATA cards, etc.," Sladek said.
Keeping blades in perspective
OpSource Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., is migrating solely to a blade environment as part of its business model to deliver software as a service to application development vendors. The company, which got its start in the managed hosting business, runs about 750 blade servers from HP to keep pace with the rapid changes to its on-demand environment, including ongoing needs to manage, house, migrate and enhance its data centers.
"Going forward we will not be buying any rack-mount servers at all," said Mitch Cipriano, OpSource's vice president of marketing.
Even so, OpSource's move is unusual, according to experts. Although the installed base of blades is on the rise, traditional servers dominate the market. Sales of blades accounted for $667 million during the fourth quarter of 2005, a mere 4.6% of overall revenues, according to IDC.
Also, Gartner predicts that blades will comprise only 20% of all data center servers by 2010. That figure includes the emergence of 10 GB fabrics. In 2005, blades represented about 9% of all servers shipped worldwide.
Vendors are pushing blades for reasons of profit as much as for their perceived advantages, according to analysts. There is a pricing premium to purchasing blades, not dissimilar to the phenomenon laptops costing more than desktop computers.
"The reason vendors have been hyping blades is because A) it's a product line that's growing and B) they cost a bit more," Wright said.
Before buying a full chassis of blades, enterprises ought to make certain they have a sufficient workload to justify the cost. Quinn says a good rule of thumb is that a half-populated chassis will cost as much to run and operate as an equal number of rack servers.
The advent of 10 GBps data pipes probably will contribute to greater deployment of blades, although Wright says this likely will be sporadic until networking and storage vendors begin producing equipment capable of handling the increased throughput.