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Adding servers to an IT infrastructure could soon be as easy as building with Lego blocks. At least that's the idea behind new servers-on-a-board, called blades, that can be stacked in a chassis, interconnected, and easily managed. But for all of server blades' virtues, businesses shouldn't toss out their rack servers just yet, because these slim systems also have their limitations.
Compaq this week will become the first major computer maker to ship server blades that run Windows on Intel chips. With the launch of its ProLiant BL blade, formerly code-named Quick Blade, the vendor hopes to establish an early lead with a technology that promises to lower the cost of building a server infrastructure through reduced management and operational expenses.
There will soon be plenty of competition. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq's would-be acquirer, will introduce blades that run the Windows and HP-UX operating systems in June. HP entered the market last year with its Linux-based Blade Server bc100. Dell Computer and IBM will follow with Windows systems later this year, when Intel releases a more-powerful version of the low-voltage chip that powers most blades, the Pentium III Tualatin processor. Sun Microsystems plans an UltraSparc blade.
Wintel blades, which in their first generation will host one or two 32-bit processors, can provide the building blocks of a front-end system that supports applications such as Web serving, caching, or video streaming. Unlike traditional rack servers, which require a slew of cabling, circuitry, and other components that limit expandability, blades are easy to swap in and out. That means the system can be expanded or contracted as required.
"We could just build a frame and add CPUs and memory as we go, which would give us a tremendous amount of flexibility," says Benjamin Knorr, systems engineering manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The consulting firm uses virtualization software, which makes one server behave as though it were two or more, to cut down on hardware. Knorr says blades could make that approach unnecessary.
Most vendors are expected to price their offerings similarly to HP's bc100, which costs $9,450 for a chassis with one blade. Extra blades are $1,925; up to 38 blades can fit in a chassis.
Sales of Intel-based blades are expected to grow from $148 million this year to $2.9 billion by 2005, capturing 10% of the Wintel server market, according to International Data Corp. Blades eventually will replace traditional servers, says Yankee Group analyst Jamie Gruener. But it won't happen soon because blades are limited in the amount of memory they support and lack the throughput of conventional servers. That makes them ill-suited for power-hungry programs such as databases.
In a time of tight IT budgets, however, blades may hold appeal for their ability to reduce maintenance costs. "It's the serviceability," says Mark Hudson, HP's business systems and technology organization director of worldwide marketing. "Customers won't need skilled IT people at remote sites."
That's because computer vendors are prepping management software to let IT staff manage every blade via a central console. The simplicity promised by such management tools appeals to Paul Marseglia, VP and chief technology officer at VideoNext Inc., an Internet-videoconferencing software, appliance, and services company in McLean, Va. Marseglia, who oversees three HP 9000 Unix servers and an HP Netserver Windows system, hopes to replace some hardware with a large chassis populated with multiple blades and storage to support video streaming. "It will be for less money than I pay now, and I'll manage it all through one interface," he says.
Because businesses can add dozens of blades to a single chassis, they'll be able to cram more horsepower into smaller spaces, which could cut data-center costs.
HP claims the total cost of ownership for its blades will be 17% less than conventional servers. Here's how it got that number: At $138,615 for a fully loaded chassis with 48 blades, HP's blade architecture is about $20,000 more than a comparably configured rack system. But HP projects that over three years, the blade system will save almost $40,000 on floor space and about $18,000 on electricity, because of its low-voltage design. Higher availability and simplified administration could multiply those savings as much as sevenfold, HP says.
As part of its blade rollout, Compaq will include software and hardware to ease administrative functions, such as remotely loading software simultaneously to blades, and automatically detecting and fixing component failures. Compaq will sell the new software, which also works with rack servers, as part of its ProLiant Essentials software pack.
Management tools are key to successful server-blade implementations, IBM says. It won't release its one-and two-processor xCalibur blades until the third quarter, after it's readied a suite of compatible management software. XCalibur is slated to get four-processor capability next year. The management tools will let system administrators remotely install a software patch and deploy applications. IBM is developing such technologies as part of its eLiza initiative, a multibillion-dollar effort to build infrastructure components with self-managing and self-healing capabilities.
Dell will offer management tools for its server blades, due this spring or summer, through its OpenManage line of software. Blades are Dell's first response to customer demand for modular architectures, says Darrel Ward, a senior manager. Dell will extend the approach to more powerful database servers when it unveils what it calls its brick servers later this year. Bricks will be designed to make better use of shared resources, such as input/output and storage. "We're taking a two-tiered approach," Ward says, because blades have limited flexibility for I/O, memory, and storage expansion.
Marzilli is already testing Sun's server blade.
Chris Marzilli, VP and general manager for commercial hardware systems at defense contractor General Dynamics C4 Systems in Taunton, Mass., has high expectations for the Infiniband-based Sun blade. The company wants to build scalable systems for the military that can be easily moved and camouflaged, but are powerful enough for applications that provide real-time information about battlefield conditions. He's testing an early version. "We like the small footprint with lots of power," he says.
There are many reasons IT managers should like the concept of server blades, from easy expansion to improved manageability. Yet whether companies buy the devices depends on whether they're really as sharp as they sound.