Blade servers gaining respect

The buzz over blade servers could have been just another fad—come and gone in a matter of months as the promise failed to materialize.

It hasn't worked out that way, though. Agency officials' interest in the relatively new technology is increasing, and vendors are pumping support into blade product lines.

Blade servers are just what the name implies: thin and sleek. They generally consist of one or more processors and memory mounted on a thin circuit board. Blades generally take up less space than more conventional server configurations, making them an attractive option for high-density clusters, where many processors are harnessed into a single system.

Blades are also usually hot-swappable, meaning that if one should fail, a new one can quickly be plugged in to take over for it. They also typically share resources. Instead of each server having its own Ethernet connection, power supply and other connections, several blades mounted in a single rack will share one set. Although they come with a small amount of hard drive space, most designs depend on external storage, making the blade smaller.

It's better to view blades as just one approach to designing rackmount servers rather than as something exotic, said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata Inc.

"In general, blades should be thought of as an evolving form of rackmount servers instead of something completely different," he said. "Blades are not a fundamentally different kind of server." But they generally are more expensive than conventional rackmount servers, he added.

Some vendors have found that heat presents a problem with blades as well, said Tim Golden, director of product marketing at Dell Inc. In an ultradense environment, where blades are packed closely together to maximize processing power, the rack of blades can be tough to keep cool, he said.

The public and private sectors have been generally slow to adopt blades, Haff said. However, that's changing.

Blades provide an attractive option in clustered operations, in which multiple processors are harnessed together, and also where space is scarce.

"We have customers today who deploy blades on submarines," Golden said. "Obviously, space is constrained on a submarine, as is power consumption."

"There's a growing awareness, but this marketplace is still relatively new," said Tim Dougherty, manager of IBM Corp.'s BladeCenter. "Frankly, it takes the market a while to know what their alternatives are. Our blades are the fastest-growing server in our history, [but] still the market is relatively small compared to racks and towers."

No dummies at the crash tests

The National Crash Analysis Center is one federal entity in which officials are considering a migration to blades, said Jason Mader, manager of the high-performance computing lab there. The center, based at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., runs computer-simulated crash tests for the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Mader wants the power of a cluster without the management nightmare that goes into clustering conventional servers, he said. A typical cluster might require keeping track of 32 copies of the operating system, whereas a blade cluster can run on a single installation of the operating system.

"What we're really interested in is a system that is really easy to manage but gives you the cost per processor that you'd see in a traditional clustered system built out of commodity machines," Mader said. NEC Solutions America is installing a 12-processor blade cluster for the center, which has not used clusters, but the demands on its processing power are growing, he added.

Center analysts want to develop more detailed computer models to gather more precise data, and they also want to model more complex events, Mader said. Running a simulation of a car smashing into a wall measures only milliseconds of time. If the analysts wanted to simulate a rollover, they would need to account for a span of several seconds.

As it stands, "the input is fairly small, on the order of 4M," he said. "The output is quite large, about 5G. As the events that we're simulating become longer and more complex, the output will grow."

The center also runs tests for the State Department and the Secret Service, Mader said.

Vendors swing their blades

Information technology vendors are mostly sold on the blade configuration, according to analysts, and are backing the technology with research and development. Several new blade products, including the servers and software for managing them, have been released in recent months. Vendor officials say they see clearly defined markets for blade servers.

In June, RLX Technologies Inc. officials released a new version of Control Tower, the company's management software suite. Officials at RLX, a veteran player in the blade server universe, said the interest in blade servers is beginning to spread beyond the niche markets where it first developed.

"The initial area for us was in the high-performance clustering area," said Tejas Vakil, vice president of worldwide marketing at RLX. "We are beginning to see a broader set of interests, going more into the application server area and, to some extent, the back-end database."

Vendors are fighting inertia, though, in persuading agency managers to consider an alternative to server configurations they already know to be successful, he said. "Customers tend to standardize on particular form factors and particular architectures," Vakil said. "Once they get used to it, they don't want to change."

Control Tower now features tools that are significantly advanced compared to earlier versions, he said. They include a new policy engine, which lets administrators define rules to trigger specific actions, and an automated sparing manager to let administrators define in advance which machines to turn on if a blade fails and needs to be immediately replaced.

Although only about 20 percent of RLX's blade business is with the government, Vakil said company officials believe that market will become increasingly important for the company.

"We want to get greater share of the server market," he said. "We are treating the government market as one of our key vertical markets."

Dell officials have found the blade market to be rougher going, Golden said. Although the company has been shipping blade servers since mid-2002, it hasn't made a lot of headway yet. However, officials are redoubling their efforts, he said.

"It hasn't been a volume deployment," Golden said. "But the reality is we learned a lot about how customers use blades from that endeavor, the kind of environments they put blades into and some of the challenges they ran into. All of that is lessons learned."

He said officials want to lower the cost of blades. They should be less expensive than conventional servers of equivalent capabilities, Golden said. The break-even point should come when a standard chassis—the rack cabinet that holds the hardware—is half full, he said, and after that point, the blades should cost less per unit. The total cost of a full blade chassis should be about 25 percent less than one filled by standard servers, Golden said.

Blades should accomplish that without sacrificing capabilities, he said, adding that they should be the same products as standard servers. "You're going to be able to pack more processing power in the same space within the rack, but the products should be identical," Golden said.

As time goes on and developers solve the remaining technical issues, blades will become more widespread, he said.


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