Alliance Atlantis turns on blades in centralized data centre

When movie distributor Alliance Atlantis needed new servers, it turned to blades to reduce costs and rack space. The technology is seen as the next paradigm in data centres, where thin computer blades share centralized resources in one chassis.The Toronto-based company is the largest distributor of motion pictures, video and DVD titles in Canada, with 13 specialty channels including the Life Network and BBC Canada.
“We replaced 40 servers in 2005 alone,” said Jeff Stein, manager of systems infrastructure with Alliance Atlantis. The company is a Microsoft shop with 140 Intel-based servers tied into a storage-area network (SAN) environment. It now uses a Dell blade centre (one chassis includes 10 blades).
Alliance Atlantis needed to replace some of those servers as a result of expiring warranties and aging technology. It already had a huge number of Dell servers on the floor, said Stein, as well as a global agreement with the vendor.
So far, the company has seen a 20 to 25 per cent reduction in costs over its standalone systems, reduced rack space and fibre cabling, and reduced deployment times.
But new technology doesn’t come without challenges. There’s a learning curve for server analysts to become familiar with the virtual aspects of configuration, said Stein, and the company will need to purchase a second blade server for a truly redundant core. It’s looking to invest in a second blade server next year.
Initially IBM, HP and Dell started developing different versions of blade technology.
“It was more accurately described as a brick than a blade,” said Tim Golden, director of worldwide PowerEdge server marketing with Dell Inc., of its previous blade incarnation.
As a result, Dell withdrew from the market for eight months in order to develop standards, said Deborah Jensen, vice-president of Dell Canada’s Advanced Systems Group.
Blades were supposed to cost less money, but didn’t — and in many cases still don’t. Dell re-entered the market 11 months ago with a focus on simplified operations, improved utilization and cost-effective scaling, said Golden.
Blades are still a very small market at this point, said Brad Dillon, server tracker with IDC Canada. But vendors are moving from the education stage to the product differentiation stage, and he expects to see the technology pick up in 2006/2007.
IBM jumped into the market in early 2004 and saw its market share climb. “IBM is the undisputed leader,” he said, and it’s also been in the blade market longest. HP is No. 2 in terms of revenue and units, while newcomer Dell is No. 3, but rapidly approaching HP.
Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst at Evans Research Corp., said power consumption is a key concern for Canadians and will be a key differentiator for companies like Dell.
Hosting companies, for example, are changing their models to charge based on power consumption instead of the amount of space used in their data centres.
Dual-core technology will be one response to the power consumption issue. “Intel is doing this, but so is the rest of the world,” said Golden. While dual-core technology will increase power consumption by 15 to 20 per cent, it will also increase performance by 26 to 53 per cent, he said.
While Stein said Alliance Atlantis would look at the possibility of rolling out dual-core next year, he isn’t making any commitments. “You don’t want to be first, but you don’t want to be last,” he said. But he sees the industry moving toward dual-core and expects there to be an inevitable shift — a shift that in the long-term could reduce total cost of ownership.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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