Blades poised to cut into federal server market

As policy mandates and cost and facility limitations compel agencies to pack more computing power into smaller spaces, vendors are rolling out compact but high-powered "blade" servers in hopes of winning federal sales and private-sector business.

This month, Sun Microsystems Inc. announced Sun Fire Blade, a line of blade hardware and services that starts shipping in March, while blade pioneer RLX Technologies Inc. strengthened its foothold in the public sector with upgraded versions of its technology.

Meanwhile, IBM Corp. announced that it has received 5,000 orders for its eServer BladeCenter, released late last year. Dell Computer Corp. released its first blade server, PowerEdge 1655MC, last November, and Hewlett-Packard Co. rolled out its first blades at the end of 2001.

The main difference between blade servers and other systems is their slim shape. A single blade consists of one or two high-powered processors mounted on a single circuit board, along with memory and data storage. Multiple blades go into a single box called the chassis. The chassis slides into a standard 19-inch rack. Although a conventional 1U server takes up one 1.75-inch vertical slot in the rack, the blade chassis occupies several slots but packs more processors into the space than 1U servers can.

For example, RLX's new 2800i and 3000i blades hold two processors each; up to 10 can slide into the new 600ex chassis, which takes up six slots, or 6U, in the rack. That's 20 processors in the space of six 1U servers.

The whole chassis operates on one power supply, one set of input/output devices and one set of connections to the network and storage systems — while conventional configurations require that whole gamut for each server. And unplugging a bad blade to replace it is easier than disconnecting and installing traditional rack-mounted servers.

That is not to say that blades are always the best choice, according to David Freund, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. The technology is still relatively new, with vendors trying different approaches and no standards yet determined. The management and clustering software is still evolving, and blades aren't suitable for high-horsepower chores.

"I think the sweet spot for some time is going to be the low end, creeping into the midrange," Freund said. "Anything where you're putting multiple servers into one cabinet cries out for a blade form. You're looking at lower acquisition costs as you get up into the numbers." Web servers, pattern-matching applications and other high-throughput tasks are a good match for blades.

"There is a natural home for blades, and it's in environments where there are large numbers of servers and they want to deploy the servers in a consistent way," said Bob Van Steenberg, RLX's chief technology officer. "Blades are an inexpensive building block."

At the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dr. Wu-chen Feng has built a supercomputer called Green Destiny with an early RLX blade server that used low-powered chips from Transmeta Corp. Deliberately trading performance for the reduced heat output, he was able to build a $335,000 refrigerator-sized machine that performs 160 billion operations per second at its theoretical peak.

However, Green Destiny is "super" only when compared to more conventional servers. Another Los Alamos supercomputer, dubbed Q, runs about 400 times faster, but it takes up half an acre of floor space and costs $215 million. Feng uses Green Destiny to process cosmological data and genomic information.

"What we have built is the Toyota Camry of supercomputing," Feng said. "It's reliable and will keep running and running." Green Destiny operates in a dusty warehouse with an average temperature of 85 degrees and hasn't failed once since Feng fired it up in September 2001. However, newer blades using Intel Corp.'s Xeon chip would not hold up in that heat, he said.

Vendors will find that hardware has quickly become a commodity, Freund said. "What's more important is the logical management," he said. "The blade paradigm, that you have all these servers within a single chassis, has forced on vendors and customers the idea that you have to manage these things in aggregate. The vendors are now rolling out the capability to do that, and the race is on."

Indeed, all of the vendors that have recently announced new blade offerings have emphasized the control and management software that comes with the boxes. "The competition isn't at the blade, it's in the management," agreed Paul Barker, RLX's vice president of marketing. "The single biggest issue deployers have is one of integration. That's why we're so bullish on management."

Egenera Inc. of Marlboro, Mass., and RLX, both small start-up companies, were the first to offer blade servers in early 2001. The bigger players caught on and are now trying to catch up.

"Because the federal government fits into the model of a large enterprise, it is one of our target markets," said Tim Dougherty, IBM's director of blade server strategy. "The same pressures are on the federal government that are on private businesses today. Getting everything out of your dollars is what people are after."

Sun's Netra servers incorporate some blade technology and are widely used in the government, said John Leahy, chief of staff for Sun Microsystems Federal. The company plans to sell Sun Fire Blade to that customer base.

"The government has been a key market for Sun for over 17 years," he said. "What we see in the government market today is transformation. Everybody's trying to transform their business to provide better service to the citizen. And across the board, the elements that are fueling the transformation center around network computing."

The new Homeland Security Department offers an especially fertile field of opportunities, Leahy said, because of the demand for collaboration and information sharing among agencies and new initiatives, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service's entry/exit system. "That's a very network-centric application," he said.

The blade paradigm is beginning to show up in other technologies as well. Late last year, Storage Technology Corp. released BladeStore, a storage system featuring up to five 160G hard drives on cards. Up to 10 of the cards can be plugged into a chassis, for 160 terabytes of storage.

StorageTek has not sold the new system to federal agencies yet, but several users of its other systems, including NASA and the Air Force, are set to evaluate it, said Thomas Nelson, the company's public-sector marketing director.

StorageTek has to build a niche for the product, which can't retrieve data as quickly as more expensive SCSI disk arrays, he said. It is positioning BladeStore as an intermediate backup system for data that is too new to be archived on a tape drive but not needed as immediately as more recent information.

But regardless of whether the blade concept takes root in storage systems and other technologies, vendors are betting there is a significant need for it in server applications.

"There seem to be two trends of thought [regarding] blades in the industry," RLX's Barker said. "One is that the blade is just another 'form factor.' That misses the entire point of what the blade is doing to the data center. Blades are becoming the next generation that will drive data centers forward."

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