Are Blades In Your Future?

Blade servers are a hot phenom. That said, what do server blades really offer? And what don't they? Here's how you can compare these diminutive servers with their more

May 10, 2004

4 Min Read
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Blade servers are a relatively new phenomenon in the panoply of IT products. Small, single-card servers that fit as many as 84 two-way servers into an industry-standard rack, these server blades promise to provide much more computing power per cubic foot than is possible with standard rack-mount servers, or standalone box servers.

However, there are some caveats. For example, the heat density in a stack of server blades can get pretty intense, so that you may wind up adding some more air-handling capability than you might otherwise have needed. And, if you're thinking that blades are going to solve all your space problems in an already established data center, think again. Ripping out what you have to install blades will save you space, but it isn't cheap, and you have to consider costs carefully as you consider whether server blades are a solution that you want to consider. Further, if your enterprise is running an IT setup with a server group and a networking group, then putting in a blade server rack could cause some political problems that will require the attention of higher management: The servers and the network are all in one spot, so some functions may not be necessary any more, and that will cause lots of angst.

That said, what do you get if you want to go into server blades? And what don't you get? How can you compare these diminutive servers with their more traditional cousins?

Take a look at the Sun B1600 blade platform, which you can see at the company's Web site. According to the company's pricing and configuration information, you can get a starter pack consisting of the chassis, eight B100s blade servers, one Sun Fire V120 server, the Solaris operating system, provisioning software and the Advanced Lights Out Manager, for remote management, all for $23,349. The B100s server blade is based on a single 64-bit UltraSPARC processor, and Sun says it is the first 64-bit blade server.

Of course, then you can expand the system with eight more blades, either SPARC or x86-based, or you can add special-purpose networking blades. If you opt for the B200x server blade, then you get blades with two x86 processors, so you can add even more processors into the package.Or, if you're a strictly x86 shop, then you can go to a host of possible vendors to get some x86-based blade servers. For example, IBM offers its eServer Blade Center. This product line also offers a chassis with the ability to add one-way, 2-way or 4-way x86 processor blades. The chassis itself offers 14 bays, which gives you as many as 28 2-way servers in a 7U space, or 84 servers in an industry-standard rack. You can add management software and special-purpose blades, such as KVM (keyboard, video, monitor) blades, switch modules, blowers, etc.

But you can add blades based on the PowerPC processor if you like, so you can mix and match here as well.

These are just samples of the kinds of blades that you can assemble into a pretty powerful stack of server muscle. But there are more advantages.

Tim Dougherty, director of the IBM eServer Blade Center, says that when you're thinking of blades, you should be aware of some of their advantages in re-integrating -- that is, bringing back together -- the data center. In the early 90s, when budgets were fat, he says, departments tended to get their own servers, and tried to run their own IT operations for certain kinds of functions. Then, as budgets tightened (and still are) these servers came back to the IT department. "Blades are the perfect construct to do that," Dougherty says. "They are very easy to set up and deploy, they need fewer people to manage them, and they are far less complex," than standalone servers with networking connections between them. For example, he claims, "you can get 89 per cent fewer cables with these blades, because of the fact that we integrate so much together."

But don't forget that you will need other hardware if you go the blade route. Says Pat Buddenheim, product line manager for the Intel blade product line, "You'll need storage, either a SAN or some NAS. You need to set that up, but a fibre channel switch plugs into the back [of the chassis]."And you'll also need a gigabit switch in the main backbone of the blade server enclosure, and you'll need the rack to put all this into, as well as power, air handling, floor space and so forth. But once you've gone through all that, the price for a chassis and 14 computer blades, and the fibre-channel switch is "pretty close to a 1U [rack-mount] server from a price perspective."

And prices should fall as more get into the market. IBM is a recent entry. You can probably expect more, because the projections are that the market is going to grow sharply. Dougherty says that the blades are "the fastest growing server product in our history." So perhaps it's time that you investigate the benefits that server blades can bring to your enterprise.

David Gabel has been testing and writing about computers for more than 25 years.

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