When blade servers hit the market less than five years ago, they were aimed at companies such as ISPs who needed lots of server capacity in a hurry to accommodate the ever-expanding Web. The idea seemed so obvious: put common elements such as fans and power supplies in a shared chassis and add computing

power in the form of a server on a card, as needed. We’ve been doing it for years, adding ports to network switches.

Then corporations discovered that blades had a home in their data centres as well. With rack space at a premium, they found they could stuff twice the number of servers into a given space with blades. The tangle of cables was eliminated as well, since servers within an enclosure communicate through the backplane; only the enclosure itself needs external cables.

That’s not to say that blades are taking over, but their growth is still significant. Last year, they represented five per cent of U.S. server market shipments, according to IDC, and that share is expected to grow to 28 per cent by the end of 2008. Worldwide, says IDC analyst Jessica Yang, the trend is the same.

The small percentages still represent a good-sized market. This year, U.S. blade server spending is expected to hit US$603 million (close to US$1 billion worldwide) and 174,000 units; by 2008 the estimate is US$4.1 billion, and 1,224,000 units. In Canada, the market is still small, with only 1,800 units sold in Q2, 2004.

Yet many of those sales, so far, have been concentrated in a handful of vendors. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sun Microsystems and RLX Technologies own a whopping sixty per cent of the market, with IBM and HP holding the lion’s share.

We requested information on their wares from the top five vendors; here’s what we found out.

Prices quoted are vendors’ list, in Canadian dollars, and converted at the current Bank of Canada rate as required.

RLX Technologies

RLX grabbed the NO. 3 spot in Canada in the second quarter of this year, with 11.5 per cent of shipments. In the U.S., it was number four in 2003, with six per cent (four per cent in the first half of this year).

A pioneer in the blade universe, its offerings include single and dual Intel Xeon processor blades at up to 3.06 GHz, with up to 120GB storage in 60GB ATA drives and 8GB RAM per blade. By the time you read this, new models will have been released offering the Intel EM64T chip set.

The 6U 600ex chassis holds 10 blades, three redundant power supplies and cooling fans (all hot swappable), two Gigabit Ethernet uplinks and optional management or KVM blades.

The Control Tower XT management software runs on a dedicated blade, and automates operating system and software deployments; if a blade fails, when its replacement is popped in Control Tower will image it and bring it online.

Supported operating systems include Red Hat Linux 7.3 and 9.0, Fedora Linux, Windows 2000, and Windows Server 2003.

HP

HP is NO. 2 in the blade world, though by a slim margin. Last year, IDC said it trailed IBM by one per cent in U.S. shipments, and it lags by six per cent in the first half of this year. In Canada, the picture is the same.

Its ProLiant line of blades is extensive. It has two series: the BL e-class, for front-end applications and computational clusters, and the BL p-class, for enterprise applications.

The BL p-class chassis is 6U high, and holds eight BL20p, 16 BL30p, or two BL40p server blades. Two outside bays allow for interconnect switches or patch panel modules. The power system is a separate unit, 3U high, that holds up to six three-phase power supplies.

The blades are of varying sizes, as you can guess from the radically different quantities that can fit into an enclosure. The BL20p and BL30p support dual processors, while the BL40p can handle quad Xeons. Speeds go up to 3.2 GHz.

The BL20p and BL40p support SCSI disks (2 and 4, respectively, though neither ships with drives), while the BL30p has a pair of ATA drive bays.

The BL40p has two PCI-X expansion slots for SAN connectivity.

These configurations are not cheap, so in an effort to encourage businesses to try blades, HP offers a BL20p starter bundle consisting of a chassis, two 3.06 GHz BL20p blades, a single phase power enclosure with two power supplies and a patch panel and mini bus bar to plug them all into for $12,869, a saving, says HP, of more than 30 per cent.

Supported operating systems include Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000 Server, Red Hat Linux, and Novell NetWare 6.5 (BL20p only).

Dell

Dell was no. 3 in the U.S. blade market, with 12 per cent of shipments in 2003. This year, its share has fallen by half, though new products to be released in the fourth quarter may improve the picture.

It offers the PowerEdge 1655MC chassis, a 3U enclosure that holds up to six server blades. The chassis includes redundant power supplies and cooling fans, remote management card with integrated KVM switch, and a managed Layer 2 Ethernet switch (a second switch is optional) with six Gigabit Ethernet inputs (four copper uplinks).

Maximum configuration for a blade is dual 1.4 GHz Intel Pentium III processors (133 MHz front side bus), up to 2GB 133 MHz ECC SDRAM, Ultra160 SCSI controller, RAID controller, two SCSI drives (up to 146GB at 10K RPM or 72GB at 15K RPM), two embedded Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and one USB port.

Dell offers factory installation of Windows 2003 Server (standard, enterprise or Web edition), or Red Hat Linux Enterprise V3. Windows 2000 Server, Advanced Server. Red Hat Professional Linux 7.3, 8.0 and 9.0 are all validated on the platform, but not available pre-installed.

IBM

IBM is undeniably top of the heap in blade servers. With a 30 per cent share of U.S. shipments in the first half of this year (up by 25 per cent over 2003, mostly at Dell’s expense), it is currently pulling ahead of HP. In Canada, in Q2, 2004 it did even better, with a 37 per cent share.

Its BladeCenter line consists of models supporting up to four Intel Xeon processors with speeds up to 3 GHz, and a 400 MHz front side bus, up to 16GB ECC DDR RAM, two hot-swap SCSI drives (total, up to 293.6GB capacity), and four Ethernet controllers. Up to two optional blade server interconnect modules provide Fibre Channel or Gigabit Ethernet connectivity for the chassis.

The 7U enclosure holds 14 server blades, and is equipped with four hot swappable power supply bays and four switch module bays. It has a single management module, with the option to add a second, and has keyboard, video, mouse, USB and Ethernet connections. IBM is the only vendor to include diskette and CD-ROM drives in its chassis; they are accessible to all blades.

Supported operating systems include Microsoft Windows, SuSE Linux, Red Hat Linux, and Novell Netware.

Sun

Sun is NO. 5 in the top five, with a five per cent share of U.S. shipments in 2003, and four per cent in the first half of this year. In the second quarter of this year, it gleaned six per cent of Canadian shipments.

Its Sun Fire blade system consists of the Sun Fire B1600 chassis, a 3U module supporting 16 blades. It includes dual power supplies, integrated Gigabit Ethernet switch fabric and one switch and system controller (a second is optional).

The Sun Fire blade server family includes the B100s blade, a 64-bit single processor server, the B100x single processor 32-bit server, the B200x 32-bit dual processor blade, and other specialized blades.

The B200x features a pair of 2 GHz Intel Xeon processors, up to 4GB RAM, a 30 GB IDE hard drive and four Gigabit Ethernet interfaces.

Operating systems offered are Solaris x86 Platform Edition and Sun’s standard Linux distributions.

Sun, like HP, has a starter kit consisting of a B1600 chassis, eight B100s blades, one V120 server, appropriate licences and full installation for about $40,000.

Double-edged sword: buyer beware when checking out blades

Blade servers are undeniably hot, in more ways than one. The market is growing enthusiastically, as corporations discover how much they can stuff into how little space, and how much tidier their racks can be without the rat’s nest of cables that accompany ordinary servers.

In the less than positive sense, blades do generate heat in their enclosures. In fact, IDC’s Jessica Yang says unless a data centre was built in the past 10 years, it probably cannot offer either sufficient power or sufficient cooling to cope with masses of blades. Vendors, says Yang, now offer consultations with prospective customers to ensure blades are appropriate in their environments.

All applications may not necessarily be compatible, either. HP, for example, has an extensive list of certified apps listed on its blade server home page.

Compatibility is also an issue in hardware. “”Mix and match”” is not a term you hear in the blade world. If you have an HP enclosure, it wants HP blades, or at least blades built specifically for HP enclosures. This means that vendors such as Cisco, who may want to produce add-on modules, have to design, test and certify a different product for each vendor’s system.

Management, too, tends to be proprietary, although some blades, such as IBM’s, can also be managed with an enterprise package such as Tivoli (IBM’s enterprise management tool).

Still, blade servers have a growing place in the data centre. They can be especially valuable where large amounts of computational power are needed, as in computer animation. They do not have large amounts of onboard storage, though, and are not suited to high-availability applications since they are designed to be disposable — if one fails, it can be swapped out.

In other words, blades are still a comparatively young technology, with all of the attendant searches for the right niches and the inevitable jockeying of vendors for both marketshare and the de facto standard. The potential is huge, but homework is definitely in order.

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