Blade Servers Gain A Foothold

Strong growth is predicted as more businesses look to blades to save costs and space and to ease the challenge of managing a host of servers.

September 7, 2004

6 Min Read
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The developers of Rapsheets Criminal Records created a service they thought was right for the times: the ability to complete a criminal background check on an individual using the Internet. The problem was, they weren't sure how fast the company would grow and how much IT infrastructure should be deployed to accommodate that growth.

"Our business was on the cusp of taking off," says Tom Clark, Rapsheets' IT manager. "We knew we were going to have to invest in a stable architecture from the hardware perspective, but it had to be flexible enough to grow fast without making any unnecessary up-front investment."

Rapsheets turned to blade servers, the fastest-growing segment in the server market. Blade servers, which became available in 2001, are modular servers built on a single motherboard with integrated memory and processor.

Rapsheets, which slowly emerged in 2001 from a fledgling Web service by a Memphis, Tenn., newspaper, had accumulated a hodgepodge of hardware infrastructure in its formative stages. As the company began to crystallize its efforts early last year, it wanted to accomplish two things, Clark says: create a flexible platform that could expand easily and standardize its hardware around a single vendor. The company looked at blade alternatives and settled on IBM BladeCenter. It's now running nine Xeon-processor-based blades in a single chassis and is preparing to add a second BladeCenter chassis.

"We didn't know how many types of searches we were going to be making, plus we had a pretty small footprint as far as space to house the hardware," Clark says. "We needed to be able to add blades and change the roles of the different devices, and the blade architecture has made it fairly easy. It's just been a much better platform [than rack-mounted servers] from a management standpoint."Ease of management has been one of the main growth drivers in the server-blade market, according to analysts. In a Gartner survey of attendees at its December Data Center Conference, the top reason for considering a blade-server implementation was to drive down the cost of server installation and management. Other reasons for adopting blade servers include increasing server density and taking advantage of high-performance clusters of blades.

There were about 170,000 blade servers shipped in 2003, accounting for $545 million in revenue, Gartner estimates. Shipments are expected to hit around 340,000 this year and top $1 billion in revenue. By 2007, more than a million blade servers are expected to be shipped, accounting for about $2.5 billion in revenue. Up-front costs for blade servers, including a new chassis, can be slightly higher than traditional servers, says Rich Fichera, an analyst with Forrester Research. But blade costs break even with standard servers when six or seven blades are installed.

There also is an increasing need in high-performance computing environments to replace aging equipment with clusters of blade servers that can provide greater performance in a smaller space, says Jeffrey Hewitt, a Gartner analyst.

"The bottom line is total cost of operation," Fichera says. "There's no doubt the blade segment is accelerating, having grown from zero in three years." As blade vendors have added features such as integrated Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches and storage area networks, and as the cost of blades has begun to drop, companies buying new servers will increasingly turn to blades, Fichera says.

Blade servers can fill a number of roles, says Rush Weston, CIO of Acme Brick Co., which provides brick and other building materials. The company needed to replace an older mainframe infrastructure and determined that blade servers, particularly those with integrated Ethernet switches, solved questions involving price, space, and management. The company installed two IBM Xeon BladeCenters with a dozen blades in each. The move saved 10% to 20% when compared with a traditional rack-mounted implementation, primarily because of the integration of the Ethernet switch and power supply, he says.Blades also were a simple answer to another issue, creating a disaster-recovery center, Weston says. Since the disaster center would be housed in rented space from a telecom vendor, the less real estate required for the installation, the lower the cost. "It's all about how much sever horsepower we can cram into a rack," he says.

Nations Holding Group Inc. provides real-estate settlement services such as title searches in California and Nevada. It turned to Hewlett-Packard Xeon blade-server technology and a load balancer from F5 Networks Inc. when it launched its eBusiness Web site to allow customers such as mortgage companies to complete information searches and downloads via the Web. "It seemed like the perfect time to move forward on blades," CIO Peter Bowman says.

Nations Holding had served as a testing site for some of HP's earliest server-blade implementations "that had been a wild success, so when we went into production we bought the blades," Bowman says. Nations Holding initially installed 20 blade servers and has since doubled the number. The company also is looking to create a redundant data center and plans to relocate older equipment to that site, replacing it with blade servers.

Total System Services Inc., the world's largest provider of credit-card-processing services, moved to HP blade servers last year. That's had a strong impact on infrastructure management costs, says Tim Kelly, director of distributed technology. "We had a situation where we had stacks and stacks of equipment, and we needed to attack the proliferation of boxes," Kelly says. In the past, the company would have three or four people manage around 200 servers. Today, one person manages the same number, he says.

Blade-Server Sales To Soar, bar chartWhile HP and IBM control nearly three-quarters of the blade-server market, according to Gartner, the growth of the market is attracting new offerings from a variety of companies, including Dell, Fujitsu, NEC, RLX Technologies, and Sun Microsystems.Dell is the third-largest provider of server blades, with about a 10% share, according to Gartner--despite not having a really competitive product. To date, Dell's blade servers have been based on a Pentium 3 processor, but the company will bring out its first Xeon-based offerings in the fourth quarter.

More businesses appear to be getting closer to making the move to blade servers.

CRM Engineering Services is considering a blade implementation from NEC, says Charles McCreary, president of the provider of solid-mechanics and fluid-dynamics analysis. "Our analysis runs from run-of-the-mill stress analysis to computational dynamics predicting flow patterns and heat exchanges from various bodies, and we're constantly running out of compute space," McCreary says.

McCreary likes NEC's blades based on the Itanium 2 processor because they provide for high-performance 64-bit computing, which will let the company alleviate memory constraints associated with its 32-bit based systems, he says. "With the blades, we can just stack these things deep and the only limit is what our checkbook will bear."

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