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One type of server is growing in today's enterprise data center

The density and flexibility offered by blade servers make them increasingly popular for IT pros inside an enterprise data center.

IT pros should expect to see one type of server more common in their enterprise data centers four years from n...


A study earlier this from month predicted that, by 2020, half of the servers sold will go to cloud computing -- but back on earth in the enterprise data center, IT pros will look more and more to blade servers because of their dense and rich configuration, along with easy management by fewer humans.

Blades make up a small part of the total server market, but are growing as a percentage of those used by enterprise data centers, representing 14% of such sales today and expected to go to 20% by 2020.

"That's actually a pretty significant move," said Alan Weckel, vice president at analyst firm Dell'Oro Group in Redwood City, Calif., which published the report.

What's behind this trajectory when other types of enterprise servers are holding steady? The form factor most useful to enterprise users likely will continue to be different than the high-density and rack servers favored by cloud service providers and other hyperscale data center server buyers, Weckel said.

Brian Bayne, IT technical services manager at ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. in Cambridge, Ontario, was getting poor performance from an ERP system where some business processes were taking 48 hours or longer.

He was trying to run it through the weekend to mitigate impact on normal business operations, but "some of these things would take so long they would bleed into Monday morning ," slowing down other workloads and employees' productivity.

We were able to cram in more compute and memory power into our data center than ever before.
Brian BayneIT technical services manager, ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc.

He ended up looking for something that was denser in the rack -- whatever he selected needed to have a small physical footprint, whether it was converged infrastructure or a combination of blades.

He chose Dell's PowerEdge FX2 blade-based converged infrastructure because of its flexibility, but also found that it is modular and can perform a number of different tasks. The initial hardware upgrade was intended to improve the ERP performance, but was expanded to other uses. Having used the FX2 for several months, Bayne said he now gets better performance and reliability than he expected.

"From a physical size perspective, we were able to cram in more compute and memory power into our data center than ever before," he said.

Flexibility for enterprise data centers

Dell's blade portfolio and its FX2 platform has been around for 18 months, but has recently seen increased interest -- 34% year-over-year growth for Dell blades so far in 2016 versus 2015, according to Kevin Noreen, director of product management for the server portfolio at Dell.

He cited the small 2U form factor, which gives users flexibility in building a workload environment by putting different modules in the 2U chassis, providing options for virtual SAN, Microsoft Exchange or high-performance computing. It also allows direct-attached storage to be plugged in as one of the sleds, which is primarily used for VSAN and software-defined storage.

Buyers also have started using the FX2 blades in remote offices and branches to provide full data center capabilities, he added.

Bayne said he was drawn to the FX2 over hyper-converged infrastructure because he was using VSAN (Dell PowerEdge FD332) as a shared storage plug-in for other virtualization techniques, such as virtual desktop infrastructure. It can be accessed by multiple nodes in FX2 and allows high availability to be built into the chassis.

"That's the furthest we have pushed hyper-converged," he said.

Additionally, he also had a Dell Compellent all-flash array in place, which underscored his belief that he did not want to buy hyper-converged infrastructure.

In the end, a workload that took 27 hours dropped to an hour with FX2, Bayne said.

More blades, more control

Dell isn't the only server supplier gaining enterprises' interest -- others include Cisco UCS, the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) ProLiant family and Lenovo power blades.

In recent years, New York Life Insurance Co. standardized on HPE servers and blades, according to David Burman, who recently retired as the company's corporate vice president of IT architecture. The company also found use for converged infrastructure, but not hyper-converged, he said.

HPE's rack-mounted blades were "pretty good," and were purchased, in part, because company leaders did not like Cisco UCS, IBM and Dell, he said.

"Unfortunately, I think that was one way we got down that path," he said.

Building multiple pods with multiple blades made sense, he said, with pods of blades using top-of-rack switching made for efficient use of enterprise data center space.

"I could put my whole dev environment into this pod of blades," he said. "Basically, I have come up with a template for building out a production environment and it is easy to manage in the data center versus having all of these server farms."

Blades in the enterprise data center will continue to be used for applications where security and control are a concern, Weckel said. There can be greater control over how the SAN operates with the servers for legacy applications, where it can be refined.

"You may be able to tweak it and get performance that is equal to the cloud," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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