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Analysts sound off on best blade server innovations

Analysts at Ideas International came up with a list of their five favorite blade technologies on the market rather than rank market share.

An informal discussion turned into a heated debate about blade server technologies with some clear conclusions when the analysts from Ideas International got together for lunch recently.

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After much debate, Jim Burton, Ideas International's vice president and senior analyst of entry servers research, compiled a list of the most innovative blade server technologies on the market today from vendors such as Egenera, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), IBM and Intel Corp.

At the top of Ideas' list was Egenera's PAN architecture because of the way it brings the flexibility of a SAN to blade server architecture. Egenera blades are diskless, and the PAN Manager software creates pools of resources that can be modified by the user. It is also completely virtualized.

"I've seen blades from HP, Sun, IBM, Rackable Systems -- talked to all these engineers -- and thought Egenera's innovations were the best," Burton said. "They were the first to come out with blades and to virtualize everything, including the I/O and the processors, when other vendors weren't going down that route. Now the IBMs and HPs of the world are following their lead."

The analysts also liked HP's Virtual Connect, which virtualizes the connections between blade servers, the network and the storage resources. The system gets wired once and can be changed quickly and as often as needed. A failed blade can be replaced in minutes, all without having to disturb the LAN or SAN addresses, Burton said.

"We decided HP's Virtual Connect technology was the most innovative time and labor saving tool out there, because it allows users to change their connections on the fly," Burton said. "It is very forward looking technology. It seems the industry is following in bits and pieces."

Blades benefit from gaming innovations

The Ideas team also lauded IBM's Cell Broadband Engine (Cell BE) BladeCenter QS20, a system designed for businesses that can benefit from high performance computing and powerful processing to run graphic-intensive applications.

Originally, developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba (aka. the STI alliance) for use in gaming consoles, Cell BE's multicore architecture and ultra high-speed communications capabilities are now used to pack supercomputer-like performance into a blade form factor.

"This is really designed for high efficiency per watt. It's really a screamer, processing faster than anything on the market. It's unique and could take over the high performance computing market," Burton said. However, Burton added one caveat: "If you can program it," which is apparently not an easy task.

The analysts from Ideas are excited about low-power quad-core processors for blades, which mitigate heat concerns for the platform.

"If you could start with a clean slate and design the perfect processor for blade servers, Intel Xeon Quad-Core L5300 Series Low Voltage Processors would be the processor to use," Burton said.

Based on Intel's CORE architecture, the quad-core L5300 series delivers excellent performance, while keeping everything quite cool with its 50W heat output, Burton said. To keep heat output to a minimum, low-voltage chips have lower clock rates, but Burton said the performance of Intel's quad-core chip is so good, it doesn't really matter that the clock rate is slightly slower.

Lastly, the analysts like the idea of moving desktop computers into the data center with PC Blades or thin-client computing. In these platforms, the processor, memory and software is taken off of the desktop and put into the data center, reducing heat and noise in office spaces while protecting sensitive data that would otherwise be out in the open, Burton said.

"These bring a lot of benefits because there are no disk drives sitting on a desk -- no heat or noise … you get more security for data, like computers that contain Social Security numbers or patient records. That data can be locked up in a data center." Burton said. "You can save on power costs by putting multiple users on a single blade sharing a processor, which also allows you to save on licensing costs."

Designed and sold by many companies, such as IBM, HP, Sun and ClearCube, the PC blade delivers normal computing to a thin-client desktop from a centralized location in the data center.

Blade drawbacks

The pros are many, but there are some definite blade cons.

Burton said there hasn't been a standard developed for blade servers. Each vendor has its own chassis, and the servers are not interchangeable.

"We are seeing proprietary computing all over again. When users buy a blade server, they are stuck with that vendor. Vendors want to keep it that way, of course, so we likely won't get standardization any time soon since there is no drive to do so," Burton said.

The other issue with blades is as you add more and more processing power, you add heat.

"We are hitting a limit with the heat data centers can withstand, so users won't be able to fill a blade chassis with blades full of memory and quad-core chips. They will end up frying disk drives, running out of cooling and power," Burton said.

So, while there are compelling reasons to switch to blades and some innovative technologies to choose from, be sure to educate yourself on these platforms before making an investment.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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