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Pitching Blades

Server vendors are hyping a new form that offers less cabling, more efficient use of space and a highly configurable data center. We tested six diverse blade devices to see

We asked Cubix Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, NEC Corp., RLX Technologies and Sun Microsystems to participate. Dell and RLX sent one entry each, while HP shipped us four devices. Sun and Cubix declined to participate, both saying their products would not be ready by our test date. And despite initial interest, IBM did not submit its product for testing. NEC sent us its Express5800/ft, which didn't fit our definition of a blade for this review, but is a nice little box (see "Sweet Box, Big Price").



Intel Iometer Sequntial Test
click to enlarge

As we put the blade servers through their paces at our University of Wisconsin-Madison, Real-World Labs®, the question foremost in our minds was: "Is working with blades easier than dealing with a stack of 1U or 2U servers?" The answer is an unqualified "Yes." Just the drastic reduction of cables was a clear win; instead of a set of power, network and KVM cables for each server, there's just one set per blade chassis.

We also found that managing blades is simple, even compared with managing standalone servers. For example, HP's management software can be set for "rip-and-replace" mode. That is, when we removed a blade server from the chassis and placed similar hardware into the slot, the management software detected the new device and sent an image to the blade automatically. Try that with a standalone server.

Everyone's a Winner

We really took a shine to HP's BL20p G2 (Generation 2), which packs in the features and performance that one would expect in an enterprise-class server. And it includes HP's management software, which is more mature than the software from Dell and RLX. However, we did not select an Editor's Choice. Because each vendor is targeting a slightly different market segment, the devices we tested did not lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison. For example, some blades only had 100-Mbps network cards, while others had gigabit NICs. Also, the processors installed in the blades varied from a low-power mobile processor to a high-end P4 Xeon. Devices are listed alphabetically by vendor. Dell is targeting the midrange server market with its single blade server. The 1655MC blade server is aimed at Web serving, thin-client computing, small-file/print serving and network infrastructure services (DNS, DHCP and domain controller, for example). Dell includes its OpenManage server-management application, which sports a rapid install service to deploy images to the blades.

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