Last year there was a new buzz in the server industry with the arrival of so-called blade servers. And, as is perhaps predictable for an emerging technology, analysts have been queuing up with glowing predictions for growth.
According to analyst IDC, there will be high growth for servers over the coming year, specifically a whopping 40 per cent for high-end servers and a massive 130 per cent for blades.
IDC claims the market was worth $50m in 2002 and will rise to $3.7bn in 2006 - effectively taking one-third of the market for industry-standard servers.
Sales got off to a relatively slow start. Hewlett Packard (HP) has claimed the high ground with 54 per cent market share and 15,000 units shipped by the third quarter of 2002. IBM, meanwhile, has sold 5,000 units after 10 weeks of shipping its Bladecenter.
In a statement to vnunet.com's sister title CRN, HP cites significant increases in sales in the past two quarters, but declines to provide exact figures.
Form factor and cost savings
The excitement surrounding blades focuses on cost-saving features and form factor. Blades are slimmed down blade-like motherboards that fit vertically into specially designed chassis, as opposed to horizontal stacking in rack mounts.
In addition, blades have the added efficiency of sharing the backplane, fans and management. Using existing management software, blades can run at about 80 per cent capacity compared with about 20 per cent for standalone servers, vendors claim.
Such management, in theory at least, also allows each server to be delegated specific tasks on an as-needed basis. The neat design of blade servers has given way to a whole mythology.
Vendors talk of the arrival of 'razor and blade' hot-swapping, where customers are able to buy a basic blade chassis that is then filled and refilled with blade servers as needs and upgrades dictate.
But blades remain an engineering challenge. The dense packing of processors leads to a priority on cooling to ensure temperatures remain relatively constant. With considerable research and development muscle, the leading vendors are hoping to push start-ups into niche sectors, leaving them free to dominate the market.
But while vendors jostle for the eye of customers there is no shortage of claim, counter-claim and pre-announcements as they each bid to undermine competitors' products.
Blades were created at a time when it was envisaged there would be an ever-increasing demand for server farms among ISPs and hosting centres.
Not surprisingly, with the crash of the internet and telecoms markets, the emphasis has shifted to servers for more mainstream activities in the enterprise sector. And at a time when budgets are as tight as a sumo wrestler's jockstrap, the key factors in clinching a sale are reduced cost of ownership and consolidation.
This move away from telecoms has meant less emphasis on density and the need for low-power processors to blades aimed at more complex computing needs. But the key drivers remain: reduced power requirements, increased density and integration, so that hundreds of servers are easily managed.
Blade servers emerged two years ago, thanks to start-up firms RLX, Egenera and the more established Cubix. In 2001 RLX unveiled a system that could fit more than 300 servers in a rack that would normally have housed 42 rack servers.
RLX targeted data centres at the low end while Egenera provided high-end blades aimed at the enterprise.
Two years later, all the major server vendors, including IBM, HP/Compaq, Dell and Sun, unveiled two-processor Intel-based blade servers that integrate into their existing server strategies. HP gained first-mover advantage in December 2001 with its Powerbar blade, based on the CompactPCI standard.
This was quickly followed by Compaq's Quickblade Proliant BL e-Class server blade in January 2002, offering up to 280 processors in a single frame.
Dell (PowerEdge) and IBM (Xcaliber, and branded as BladeCenter) followed in April 2002. Perhaps strategically late to the blade party, the PowerEdge 1655MC provides six dual Pentium III server blades in a 3U (5.25in) chassis.
Sun's offerings come under the Fire Blade platform, a multi-architecture blade platform with Linux and Solaris operating systems and SPARC-based blades, based on its Cheetah UltraSPARC-III and Jalopeno UltraSPARC-IIIi processors.
Its blade products fall under the N1 vision of a multi-platform, multi-vendor operating environment which 'virtualises' distributed resources. The N1 Provisioning Server 3.0 Blades Edition is the first blade virtualisation solution.
Next-gen blades in development
With their first slew of products shipping, these vendors are now developing next-generation products. Sun plans to use AMD Athlon XP processors, while IBM promises a PowerPC chip and four-way x86 blade models later this year.
IBM collaborated with RLX technologies initially but seems to have opted for a more powerful collaboration with Intel. This gives both partners access to commonly developed blade technologies for IBM to incorporate in BladeCenter machines and for Intel to put into products that it sells to OEM customers.
Both also have the option to develop technologies for their own use. The eServer BladeCenter, has the highest density in its class, packing up to 14 dual Xeon server blades in a 7U (12.25in) chassis.
"In the past it was about how many servers you could get into a rack," explains Tikiri Wandaragula, senior eServer and storage consultant at IBM.
"But the focus of BladeCenter is a 'corporate' blade, meaning that it has a lot of fault tolerance built in: dual midplanes, redundant components, and the same software management as for existing 1U servers."
Intel is an early winner in the blade market. The choice of low-power Transmeta chips has given way to more powerful blades and the combination of IBM/Intel in the pursuit of 'standard' blades using IBM chipsets.
John Bainbridge, Intel UK and Ireland sales director, says Intel is currently providing the "building blocks rather than complete solutions".
The company will not have blade server technology aimed specifically at the channel until next year. When it arrives it will consist of a series of products that Bainbridge describes as "full-blooded blade server chassis with all the flexibility and pieces that embodies".
Intel is expected to sell these on to mid-tier white box server manufacturers under a project code-named Hampton.
Analysts, in general, remain guardedly optimistic. Simon Robinson, at London research house The451, says the battle for space saving has now given way to a battle over software. "When blades first came out it was a response to space issues.
"But now that data centre space is less of an issue the role of the blade has shifted from an edge device to a core mainstream server, and consequently management software is the way that vendors differentiate themselves. Software will be the differentiator."
Gartner analyst Adrian O'Connell claims we are now witnessing the second generation of blade servers. "It's still very early in the life cycle and market acceptance. The arrival of the major vendors signals the second generation and increased interest.
"Our end-user research reveals that 50 per cent of firms have long-term plans for buying blades, but 50 per cent have no plans. The industry has some education to do."
Gartner is not predicting any sudden increase in uptake. It sees the market becoming more mainstream but facing barriers of having to improve the performance of existing products at the same time as addressing the issue of standards.
Users still wary
O'Connell believes users are wary. "There is an aversion to vendor lock-in. It is also important for there to be standards in terms of costs so that components are standardised," he says.
Not surprisingly with a new technology there is widespread agreement that increased service margins can be derived from the need for systems integration and ongoing support. HP stresses the potential to sell value-added services.
"The bigger opportunity is going to be in services, from the initial consultancy stage through to the design of infrastructure, deployment of systems and ongoing management," says Phil McLean, product marketing manager for the Industry Standard Server Group at HP.
Middlesex-based reseller Repton has been an IBM business partner for the past four years and began marketing blade servers a year ago. Robin Porter, IBM business manager at Repton, says the key driver is consolidation.
"The proliferation of Intel servers is leading to consolidation with blades. We have been successful with project-based work in firms. The blade means they can buy a chassis and populate it slowly," he says.
Repton counts Virgin Money and Aspect Capital as current reference sites. Porter says the typical installation has been a blade server for the front-end application, such as web serving, and bigger boxes, such as IBM's x440, at the back end.
He says Linux that is often the OS of choice for his blade customers. On the downside, his main gripe is that current shipments have only one- or two-way CPU boxes in the chassis. He expects the quad CPU blade, co-designed with Intel, will give blade prospects a boost.
Reading-based reseller Data Partnerships, part of the IT Partnership group, resells Compaq's blades. General manager Justin Sutton-Parker says management is the key.
"We found a lot of the IT managers are finding simplified management quite useful, typically for file and print. The only problem is connectivity because a lot of our work is fibre-based. Fibre connectivity is coming and that will hail a huge future for blade servers."
awareness is a two-way street at the moment, he adds. "Customers are aware but we have to educate them as well. They are not too worried about the technology. They are doing a wait-and-see until there are a few successful reference sites for them to learn from."
George Eyles, business development director at Amersham-based ITM Group, says blades have yet to make an impact on storage area networks (Sans).
"A lot of the work we do is consolidating servers and storage. We are selling Compaq blades for standard infrastructure installations, but they are not yet usable for consolidation because of the lack of [fibre] connectivity," he says.
But blades also have their detractors. David Chalmers, EMEA director of product for Stratus, says blades are not attractive to enterprise customers.
"Different vendors' blades are often incompatible, complicating the management issue," he states.
"They cannot offer anything like the resilience, high availability or fault tolerance that dedicated solutions can. This means they are not suited to key or mission-critical applications, where application uptime is important."
Chalmers also cites a Standish Group study that found server clusters provided significantly lower availability than fault-tolerant servers.
"It's the difference between putting your eggs in a leaky wicker basket or in a cast-iron, velvet-cushioned box. Blades are not a good choice for resilience," he claims.
So what is most responsible for holding back sales? Lack of awareness, fear of vendor lock-in or lack of interoperability? It is a familiar list of barriers to growth for an emerging technology. The management of blade servers looks like the most complex issue to resolve.
While vendors tout existing management software, the challenge in the server environment has long been the multi-vendor environment handling loading and configuring of applications.
Also, software licensing will have to learn that the per seat/per client approach will not fit to the flexibility of blades that allocate resources as needed.
In many ways blades look set to change the server business forever. It is only a matter of time before a standards organisation steps into the frame. Then the really heated debates over appropriate standards can begin.
Data Partnerships (0118) 902 7800
Gartner (01784) 431 611
HP (0141) 270 4000
IBM (0870) 610 2502
Intel (01793) 403 000
ITM Group (0870) 871 2233
The451 (020) 7299 7765
Repton (020) 8894 9000
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