HP turns to model airplanes as inspiration for blade cooling system

PALO ALTO — Hewlett-Packard Co. has announced a new line of blade servers this week that allows IT administrators to better manage their infrastructure resources, reduce labour time and lower energy requirements, executives said.

“This day is a big announcement in a very small package,” said Ann Livermore, executive vice-president of HP Technology Solutions Group. “We’ve introduced an adaptive infrastructure that comes in a 17-inch box.”

The HP Blade System c-Class saves businesses 41 per cent in system acquisition cost, 60 per cent in data centre facilities cost and up to 96 per cent in initial system setup time cost, according to the company.

Data centre manageability is one of the key issues that enterprises face today, said Livermore, who presented the new machine to press here and thousands of people that were watching via Webcast. IDC predicts that over the next five years that organizations are going to spend three times more on the management of technology than the technology itself. To cut down on management costs, many companies have turned to cheaper alternatives such as outsourcing. But Livermore said that is a short-term solution for an ongoing problem.

“Technology needs to be more self-sufficient and needs to require much less labour to operate,” said Livermore. “Customers want to move from high cost islands to an environment that runs 24-7.”

To help organizations achieve this, the c-Class features a software tool called HP Insight Control Management, which helps users automate management of physical and virtual servers, storage, networking and power and cooling from a single platform. Beyond software, HP has borrowed some of its own technology from HP’s Imaging and Printing Group and incorporated an LCD screen into the c-Class infrastructure.

“We want to make this system as simple as customers see printers,” said Livermore. “We want to address problems as easy as customers can address a paper jam.”

From the two-inch screen, users can choose from a set of 1,000 tasks that allow them to set up, control, monitor, troubleshoot and repair the system through built-in modules via a Web browser.

Gordon Haff, an analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based research company Illuminata, who, along with other analysts, was given a pre-brief of Wednesday’s announcement, said while the LCD screen is a good idea, it doesn’t solve all management problems.

“The LCD leverages technology that (HP) has from its printer group,” said Haff. “The LCD lets users do things they need to locally.”

Data centre management is a key issue for companies like Cerner Corp., which provides hosted and on-site health care information technology services to 110 clients that it hosts in its data centre and an additional 70 that it supports remotely. Cerner, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., has a team of five IT staff that manages the operating systems of 2,500 blade servers and 1,500 rack mounted servers at the hardware level. It has another group of people that manage the application stack. Cerner is currently using HP’s p-Series servers and recently received a beta c-Class unit. The company plans to migrate to the c-Class machines in the fall.

“From the management aspect we’re excited how (HP) has consolidated their products,” said Brian Stuckey, team leader of server infrastructure at Cerner. “We’re hoping to reduce the amount of people that support our servers or maintain that number as we continue to increase our infrastructure.”

Cerner Canada has 75 clients across the country, including London Health Sciences Centre, but none that are remote hosted to date. Cerner is currently working with HP to set up a remote hosting service in Canada.

HP’s new blade architecture also offers a 40 per cent reduction in power over traditional rack mounted servers, according to HP. One of the key contributors to the c-Class’s energy savings is the redesigned HP Active Cool Fan, which cuts server airflow by 30 per cent and energy consumption by 50 per cent when compared to traditional fans. HP’s Cooling Team, which is a company-wide effort made up of technologists who research how blades are powered and cooled, converted the technology from remote-controlled airplanes into fan technology for computers.

Wade Vinson, fan technologist at HP and Cooling Team member, said HP wanted to come up with a way to reduce power consumption without decreasing the size of the chassis or taking out features such as memory. That’s when Vinson’s boss, Ron Noblett, vice-president for shared engineering services for ISS, who flies model airplanes as a hobby, suggested he look into using electric duct fan (EDF) technology — the same technology that propels the planes — to cool servers.

A couple of Google searches later, Vinson and Noblett landed on the doorsteps of a shop near Houston called New Creations RC, where they found boxes of EDF parts.

“At that point, we knew we had an answer,” said Vinson. “It allows us to support the density of the servers.”

That was in 2004. Since then, Vinson and his team completely redesigned the technology and currently have 19 patents pending with an additional patent that was approved by the Patent Trade Organization earlier this month. The new design uses one-third less power than a typical 1 U rack server, which use an average of 18 fans using 60 watts versus 20 watts on average with the new technology. HP currently has no plans to licence the Active Cool Fan technology to other hardware vendors.

The c-Class also saves on power with faster throughput (five terabits of throughput per second) that allows server administrators to manage resources via virtualized Ethernet and Fibre Channel connections.

Despite all the hype around blade technology and its growing popularity in the market, blades represent a small percentage of servers sold overall, said Illuminata’s Haff.

“The basic reason is that vendors HP and IBM are figuring out how to do blades,” said Haff. “Blades provide physical advantages in terms of tabling.”

The blade market is currently a two-horse race, with HP and IBM competing for top spot, added Haff. Dell has tried, and failed, to launch a blade product that captures the numbers its high volume servers generate. Sun, which recently launched two SPARC-based servers, Niagara and Galaxy, currently does not have any blades on the market but has indicated that it will have products coming out in the future.

Cerner‘s Stuckey, however, said blade technology was the only way that it could scale up its infrastructure to meet it’s company’s growing hosting needs.

“Given the growth that we’ve experienced I don’t know that we could have expanded this quickly and responded to the changes that we have to with anything other than blade technology,” he said.

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