Blades to slash server market

Late last month Compaq Computer became the first major computer maker to ship server blades that run Windows on Intel chips. The ProLiant BL, code-named Quick Blade, gives the one-time leading PC manufacturer a jump on the rest of the pack

in marketing a technology that is heralded as a means to cutting the costs of acquiring and assembling a server infrastructure.

Server blades can reduce expenses related to operations and management. Meanwhile Compaq’s intended acquisition target, Hewlett-Packard, will release blades in June that will run Windows and HP-UX. This is in addition to HP’s Linux-based blade server, the bc100, released last year.

A blade server is a thin board containing one or more microprocessors and memory. It is intended for a single, dedicated application, such as serving Web pages. It offers four times the processing power of a typical rack server in a smaller enclosure, deployment that is cheaper and easier, flexibility and, according to vendors, a lower total cost of ownership.

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.

The cabling, circuitry, and other components involved with traditional rack servers limit their expandability, while blades can literally swap in and out.

Most vendors are expected to price their offerings in the US$10,000 range with extra blades at about $2,000. Up to 38 blades can fit in a chassis.

Sales of Intel-based blades are expected to grow from US$148 million this year to $2.9 billion by 2005, capturing 10 per cent of the Wintel server market, according to IDC.

Blades will eventually replace traditional servers, but it won’t happen soon because blades are limited in the amount of memory they support and they 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. Customers won’t need skilled IT people at remote sites because computer vendors are prepping management software to let IT staff manage every blade via a central console.

Because organizations can add dozens of blades to a single chassis, they’ll be able to cram more horsepower into smaller spaces, which could cut datacentre costs.

HP claims the total cost of ownership for its blades will be 17 per cent less than conventional servers.

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.

The initial promised savings of blades could prove to be just the beginning. Increasingly sophisticated management software that works in tandem with blade servers could prove to be the catalyst that advocates of the ‘IT as a service’ model have always wanted.

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James Buchok is the editor of Computing Canada. Shane Schick returns Monday.

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