Are blades the next big thing in Windows servers?

New figures show blade sales are growing in Windows shops. But others say excitement over these servers is premature.

The verdict is still out on the benefits of blade servers in the Windows enterprise.

Server makers refer to them as the wave of the future in hardware. They point to their compact size, low power consumption and larger integration of server and network components.

Not everyone is lining up to purchase them just yet, but many analysts foresee huge growth for the thin boxes. Analysts at IDC, a Framingham, Mass., market research firm, predict 25% of server units on the market will be blades by 2009.

Windows administrators seem to be interested. New research from IDC reveals Windows has maintained a majority share of blade servers worldwide for two years. While the percentage splits fluctuate from quarter to quarter, the OS has not fallen below 50% since the end of 2003.

Clutter countermeasure

Joey Koonsombat, IT manager for View, an interactive media company in London, looked into using blades to host internal applications, such as the company's intranet.

"Blades are great," Koonsombat said. "They minimize the connection cables and maximize 'U' spaces on racks."

According to a survey of readers conducted by SearchWinSystems.com, 30% of respondents listed blade servers as a technology they want to learn more about. And 12% plan to implement them in their shops within the next 12 months.

Naturally, vendors are lining up to secure their place in what has been identified by some as the fastest-growing segment of the server market. Both of the two largest server makers, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., emphasize their commitment to blades in their marketing efforts. IBM has launched blade.org, a Web site geared toward creating a community of vendors and developers who will create blade standards.

 ...When you have four chassis in a cabinet, your consolidation goes out the window.
Bob Gill, TheInfoPro Inc.,

HP has been hosting a series of lectures around the country to sell its vision for the future of the blade market. Rick Becker, vice president and general manager of the HP BladeSystem group, said HP sees the next phase of blades as one that will go beyond servers. "The next wave will extend to storage, network, management and applications that are 'bladed' and integrated within one solution," Becker said.

Finding a blade standard

Vendors may see working together toward standards important because there is currently no uniform form factor for a blade chassis and a server, and there is no standard software for managing all the different kinds of blade servers. When you buy a blade chassis from one vendor, you are locked into using blades from that same manufacturer.

But Kelly Quinn, an IDC analyst, doesn't think the lack of blade hardware and software standards will keep them from taking off further in the market because vendors have already made progress.

"In terms of the lock-in factor, I think they learned a lot from that," Quinn said. According to Quinn, vendors have come a long way since blades were first introduced in 1999, and the absence of standards is just a bump in the road.

It cuts both ways

Despite vendor hype, not everyone is enthusiastic about blades, according to a study released by TheInfoPro (TIP) Inc., a New York research firm. TIP interviewed more than 70 IT professionals and found blades ranked near the middle on a list of several technologies that IT professionals are excited about.

According to Bob Gill, chief research officer with TIP, the study also revealed that 35% of users said blades are unnecessary, costly and an immature technology. "Blades aren't the only option for users," Gill said. Instead, he said, rack-mounted servers are still the preference when it comes to x86 boxes.

Blades are also power hogs. Contrary to what many vendors claim, said Gill, blade power consumption and the amount of heat they can give off, is tremendous. "In the big data centers, like the folks on Wall Street, they are finding that they put out too much heat," he said.

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While server makers often point to consolidation as a major advantage for blades, Gill said many managers have found that putting several blades in a chassis is actually not power efficient. The only way to cut down on heat is to put fewer units in each chassis. "So, when you have four chassis in a cabinet, your consolidation goes out the window," he said.

Despite some stumbling blocks, Gill said he does think blades have a bright future. He said the attitude among those with buying power may be that they are interested, but not now.

View's Koonsombat is a good example. "They are the next best thing only if the needs and requirements are suitable," he said. "Currently, it is not an option due to our IT budget, and I have maxed out on IT spending for upgrading the infrastructure. I hope to put it on for the 2006 budget."

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