Blade servers: A thin proposition?
After a faltering start, blade servers are beginning to be taken seriously by companies looking to upgrade and rationalise their server infrastructure, but there are still problems to overcome
Blade servers have had a short and inauspicious history, primarily because they lack two things: standards, and a clearly articulated marketing message. The lack of standards in lamentable, and is unlikely to be successfully addressed any time soon. A clearly articulated marketing message may be less of an issue, but it is symptomatic of the fact that when blade servers first appeared, nobody really knew what they were for.
The attraction of blades is that each server is housed, usually with a hard disk, on a single card so that many -- in some cases up to 20 -- servers can share the same chassis, supply and connectivity.
Early marketing efforts pitched blade servers at ISPs as a replacement for the "pizza-box" market, but there were two problems with this: first, ISPs prefer to buy capacity as new business arrives, rather than buy in bulk which, initially at least, blade servers dictated; and second, ISPs were getting no new customers.
The 4321 rule
Against this background of cynicism, however, blade servers have found homes in an increasing number of businesses. IBM's xSeries general manager Susan Whitney puts the benefits in terms of the "4321 rule": blade servers are four times cheaper, consume one-third the power and half the space of a normal server set-up, which would produce the same performance.
Lastminute.com is one company that has cut its teeth on blade servers. As server load doubles year on year, the travel firm looked around for a resilient solution and, given the choice of scaling up to bigger boxes or scaling out with commodity parts, the company chose the latter route, according to head of technical architecture Paul Chudleigh.
INow most of Lastminute's customer-facing systems are hosted on 56 IBM dual Xeon blades in four Bladecenter chassis. Benefits to Lastminute have included being able to keep the systems running even when several blades are out of action, and ease of management.
It's deployments like this that have helped drag blade server sales to a $119m business in the second quarter of 2003. Although this is a 693 percent increase on the same quarter in 2002, the figure pales in comparison to sales of other types of server. Of the big vendors, HP, which was the first to launch product, had the largest market share at 31.9 percent, followed by IBM on 26.9 percent and Dell on 15.1 percent.
Fast blades in a slow market
Dell appears the most restrained about the potential of blade servers. Reza Rooholamini, a director in Dell's Enterprise Systems Group, says demand is not as strong as once perceived. She believes the real take-off in demand for blades is a year away. Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff sees Dell's position as a barometer of where the volume market is. "Blades have been a slow market to develop," he cautions.
Others are more optimistic. HP and IBM are currently locked in a race to squeeze the most processing power onto individual blades without having to resort to water cooling. In August, HP introduced dual-processor blades that use Intel's latest 3.06GHz Xeon DP processor and put a faster 2.8GHz Xeon MP chip in its four-processor blade. IBM is poised to release blades with 3.06GHz processors next month and plans to follow this with its first four-processor blades.
And while HP can augment its Intel blades with PA-RISC blades running HP-UX, IBM plans to ship blades based on its PowerPC 970 chip to early customers in the fourth quarter, with full production beginning in the first quarter of 2004 -- a delay from the original schedule, which envisioned volume shipments this year.
Sun's first blade system meanwhile, which lets 16 blades with the company's own UltraSparc IIe processor fit into a 5.25-inch-tall chassis, shipped earlier this year, but its second blade-server design, using AMD Athlon processors, is expected by the end of 2003. A dual-processor x86 blade is also on the cards at Sun, as is a dual-core UltraSparc blade -- the company has refrained from saying whether this will be based on the Sun's Gemini processor, a design using UltraSparc II processors intended for low-end servers.
When the x86 blades arrive, customers will be able to mix them with UltraSparc blades in the same chassis. It's a practice employed by one Sun blade beta customer, Canadian telecommunication company Telus, according to Craig Richardson, the telecom company's assistant vice president for hosting and managed applications.