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Blade servers help cut through storage challenges

Some companies are discovering that blade server technology lets them do more -- like save precious data center space -- with less.

Consider this scenario: Your IT department manages two separate IT systems. You want to increase performance and develop a scalable infrastructure and at the same time consolidate your existing servers.

One possible solution is to implement blade server technology.

Blade servers first emerged in 2001, and after a slow start with modest customer adoption rates, they are gaining momentum. From server consolidation initiatives to grid computing projects, they are moving into data centers, displacing regular single, dual and quad CPU servers.

While many enterprises turn to blade server technology to simplify data centers, cost savings are another major draw. Some analysts say enterprises moving to blade servers can enjoy a 40% reduction in total cost of ownership and as much as an 85% reduction in cabling for blade installations over conventional rack-mount or box servers.

But is the technology the right choice for your IT needs?

Servers on a card
A blade server plugs into the back- or mid-plane of a chassis, like books slide into a bookshelf, sharing power, fans, floppy drives and switches with other blade servers. The blades are literally servers on a card, containing processors, memory, integrated network controllers, an optional Fiber Channel HBA and other I/O ports. Blade servers allow more processing power in less rack space, simplifying cabling and reducing power consumption.

Each blade typically comes with one or two local ATA or SCSI drives. For additional storage, blade servers connect to a storage pool facilitated by a network-attached storage (NAS), Fiber Channel or iSCSI storage-area network (SAN).

"The reduction in cabling combined with the simplicity of adding servers has been one of the main drivers for companies with more than 25 servers to deploy blade servers," noted Mark Croad, director of technical support at FutureQuest, a systems integrator and Value-Added Reseller (VAR) headquartered in Fremont, CA.

"Blade servers are becoming the form factor of choice for load-balanced applications such as Web server farms--a space that has been dominated by 1U servers," he added.

"On the downside, the lack of a blade server standard has held back a more rapid adoption of blade servers," Croad said. "An additional restrain," he continued, "is the initial costs for the chassis, management software and training, which are significantly higher than buying a single server. While you can buy a 1U server for under $4,000, the initial cost for a chassis, including all required components, can easily exceed $10,000."

One key: management software
The high level of scale-out achievable with blade servers by simply adding blades to a chassis makes system management software that deploys, manages and provisions blades a crucial component. Vendors such as HP are extending their server management software to manage and provision Server Virtual Machines in addition to physical resources such as blades, enabling an additional level of consolidation.

"While chassis and blades are becoming commodity items, blade management software is the big differentiator and should be at the top of the evaluation list when looking at blade server offerings," said Marcellus Tabor, vice president, engineering, of ECO Systems Group, a systems integrator based in San Francisco.

IBM leads the pack
If you are in the market for blade server technology, there are several vendors to choose from, including IBM, HP, Dell Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Intel Corp.

The market leader in 2004 was IBM, with a commanding 44% of the market, according to market researcher IDC (HP was second in the market with a 32% share).

In an attempt to gain a larger market share and fill the standards hole, IBM and Intel in September 2004 released a blade server specification available with royalty-free licenses to IBM or Intel. This move, says IBM's Tim Dougherty, director of BladeCenter Marketing, will help third-party OEMs create an array of BladeCenter compatible gear. By December 2004, more than 100 companies had acquired BladeCenter products.

Meanwhile, Dell released its first Xeon-based blade system, the PowerEdge 1855, a year and a half after HP and IBM debuted Xeon-based blades.

With the trend toward higher density and more manageable systems, many companies may find that blade servers are another option over larger form factor servers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jacob Gsoedl is a corporate IT Director. He can be reached at

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