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Blade server architecture offers efficiency, but lock-in risks remain

For organizations concerned about blade server lock-in, virtualization and cloud offer compelling alternatives with similar benefits, such as consolidation in the data center.

Blade servers, which put multiple servers in the same chassis, are commonly used in enterprise data centers because they efficiently use available floor space. However, since the configuration of the chassis is specific to each vendor, the risk of blade server vendor lock-in is real.

By nature, a blade server architecture is vendor-specific. You can't fit a Dell server into a Cisco chassis, and no vendors provide generic blade server modules that fit within different vendor chassis. So if vendor lock-in is a major concern, you might want to consider some blade server alternatives.

Why use a blade server architecture in the first place?
Before considering alternatives to blade servers, understand why your company adopted, or considered adopting, blades at all. One likely reason is that blade servers, compared to other server types, more efficiently use rack space in the data center. If that was your company's major driver, then explore other options that allow you to use data center floor space more efficiently, such as virtualization.

Another major driver for blade server adoption is performance. In a blade server architecture, all components are optimized to communicate with one another, which, theoretically, should give you a performance boost. However, you can still gain similar performance benefits by using hardware from different vendors, since standard protocols -- such as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol for network access, and iSCSI for access of storage devices -- connect performance-critical components.

Diagnose the problem

Now that you know why your company pursued blade servers, it's important to determine your specific concerns about the technology. For example, you can't put a blade server from one vendor in a blade server chassis from another, but that doesn't have to be a problem. If you're dissatisfied with the current blade server, you can choose to purchase another vendor chassis when you're looking at data center expansion. Think of the blade server chassis as a big server that has a limited economical life. There isn't much reason to worry about failing servers within the chassis, as that should be covered by the support contract with the hardware vendor.

If for some reason you still feel you need to switch blade server vendors, ask yourself if you're on the right track doing so. Blade servers work with specific hardware. When you replace one blade server with another, you might find yourself in the same position in which you began.

Consider virtualization or cloud

If flexibility is your primary goal, consider virtualization, which can work on top of a blade server architecture, as well as on classic, rack-based servers. And, if you're already running virtualization on top of blade servers, ask yourself how blades add value to your data center. You may find that you're just using blades because your company has always used them, not because there's a strong need anymore.

Another alternative is cloud. As the technology matures, companies move more workloads to cloud, and gain all of the benefits, including more efficient use of data center space, that previously led them to blade servers. However, because the cloud doesn't have dedicated hardware, it isn't recommended for some workloads, such as high-performance computing on virtual machines.

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