Blades: Wait 'Til Next Year

Next-generation blade servers will get more powerful and attractive for enterprise applications.

America Online Inc. hopes to slash IT costs by 30% next year and sees blade servers as a big part of that plan. AOL is currently testing IBM's BladeCenter servers for possible use in four data centers spread throughout Virginia.

"One of our primary business objectives is to drive costs down. We can't do that with continuous process improvements [alone]," says Norm Koo, executive director of corporate technology at AOL in Dulles, Va. "We need disruptive technologies such as Linux and blade servers. That's why we're testing blade servers now."

Koo and other IT customers view blade servers as "disruptive" because early adopters have found that their total cost of ownership is 30% to 50% less than that of traditional servers - with the biggest savings coming from their smaller size and lower power consumption.

Cost Advantages

Freed of the physical bulk and componentry of traditional servers, blades slide into slots in a special chassis that typically allows the blades to share a common backplane, cooling fan and cabling as well as external network and storage connections. This dramatically reduces the cabling and space requirements.

The market for blade servers is expected to flourish, thanks to the cost savings they offer. IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have jumped into the market, joining a handful of early blade-server suppliers, such as RLX Technologies Inc. and Egenera Inc., in offering single-processor and, more recently, dual-processor blade servers.

IDC in Framingham, Mass., projects that in 2006, vendors will ship 1.7 million blade server units worth an estimated $3.5 billion in revenue. And that revenue figure doesn't include the accompanying systems management tools and related software sales, says John Humphreys, a senior IDC analyst.

Next year could be a big one for the blade server market. IDC estimates that 26% of U.S. companies plan to purchase a blade server in the next 12 months, based on a survey of 500 users in July. And higher-density blade servers coming out next year are expected to be more powerful and more capable of handling a range of midlevel enterprise computing functions, such as e-mail, firewalls and even data warehousing and e-commerce applications.

HP says it will release a four-processor blade in the next quarter, and most of the other leading server makers plan to follow suit with quad-density servers in the first half of next year.

Dell is expected to ship the modular blade servers it announced in August and offer even greater modularity next year. Analysts say Dell will separate I/O and processing components in upcoming blade servers, enabling IT organizations to gain greater flexibility to reuse or reconfigure components as business needs change.

Vendor Optimism

Meanwhile, IBM and Intel Corp. are teaming up to develop higher-density blade products that should be available in the coming months as well .

"Many IT customers are starting to realize 2003 is likely to become the year of the blade server," declares Tim Dougherty, IBM's director of blade server strategy.

But analysts at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., have a more skeptical view. In a series of reports this year, Gartner analysts said the blade server market won't really take off until vendors agree to standards for the backplanes so that blades from different vendors can be plugged into the same chassis.

The Gartner reports suggest that, absent those standards, blade servers are an immature and proprietary technology that could lock you into a relationship with a single vendor.

Gartner's advice: Companies should wait on purchases until the standardized products are available, unless they can realize a rapid (two years or less) return on investment from blade servers based on savings in rack space, power consumption or administrative costs.

Nevertheless, HP says it's already shipping about 2,000 blade servers per month. And analysts anticipate that growing numbers of organizations will start testing blade servers next year to help ease increasing systems management costs. "The relatively low cost of ramp-up - combined with the improving automation of server management functions - will attract customers," says Peter Kastner, chief research officer at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

Forging Ahead

Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., is one early adopter. Dollar uses nine HP blade servers to help speed the deployment of some new applications while keeping costs down. "We needed a tool to get new applications up and running quickly," says Larry Scott, manager of server support at Dollar.

Previously, the IT staff had gotten bogged down in the complex, time-consuming process of getting new Unix servers and applications running. But the simplicity of blade servers, coupled with rapid-deployment software tools from HP, means there's "less room for error when installing blade servers and ramping up applications," Scott says.

Dollar has been using blade servers for almost a year, for everything from front-end Web applications to midlevel data center applications. Currently, the rental car company uses nine HP ProLiant BLe blade servers in three separate locations, and Dollar expects to roll out HP ProLiant BLp dual-processor blade servers next year.

In the future, the company plans to add blade servers for business continuity purposes and to move toward what Scott calls a "virtualized" data center environment, in which applications can be shifted across multiple servers on short notice as required by business needs.

For AOL, the biggest advantage of the IBM blade servers is the integrated switching capabilities.

"If you buy switches separately from [a supplier such as] Cisco, there's a per-unit cost of $10,000 apiece. Instead, we can insert a switching module in a blade server, reducing our cost by factor of 10," Koo says.

In addition to the benefits of integrated switching, customers say blade servers also simplify matters such as the following:

• Cable management, by reducing cabling by as much as 85%, according to customers and vendors.

• Power supply management, because a separate power supply isn't needed for each switch.

• Technical training, because integrated switching and software support reduces the staff training required to maintain blade servers.

AOL is testing 56 IBM BladeCenter servers - with 14 blades per chassis - running Linux for specialized Web routing services that are used to check the status of each customer's AOL account before sending that information to other systems that grant customers access to online services.

There are currently more than 800 Unix-based servers performing this specialized routing function. If the blades being tested perform as advertised, AOL will start replacing Unix servers with blades next year. The Unix servers, meanwhile, will be shifted to other applications.

Koo says AOL expects to deploy a considerable number of blade servers during the next few years and will likely test blades running other data center applications, such as data warehousing, as well.

Melding Servers

While standards are sorely needed, Aberdeen's Kastner says it's becoming increasingly clear that "what once could be done with an expensive eight-way or larger Intel or Unix server can now be done with a handful of powerful blades."

However, it's still unclear how data centers will monitor and manage superdense server farms that include both blades and traditional hardware, says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. Vendors tend to view the two types of servers as separate things, but IT customers will have to find ways to manage the technologies cost-effectively.

DePompa is a freelance writer and editor in Germantown, Md. Contact her at bdepompa@aol.com.

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IT Hardware: The Shape of Things to Come

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