Hardware Today: Sunlight or Shade for Blades?

Monday May 22nd 2006 by Drew Robb
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As the debate over server blade maturity rages on, vendors from IBM and HP to Egenera and Verari continue to innovate and improve.

Relatively speaking, blade servers are fairly new to the server scene. They entered the market about five years ago, and since then have steadily gained market share. According to the Stamford, Conn. based research firm Gartner, 564,189 blade units shipped worldwide in 2005.

Despite this fairly rapid penetration, the technology still has some maturing to do, and some vendors are not yet fully on board. Others question the staying power of blade servers.

"Blades in the enterprise are dead; they are over-promised and under-delivered," says Michael McNerney, director of blades marketing, Systems Group at Sun Microsystems. "Extreme density and cable consolidation are nice to have, but with today's blade architecture, they come at the cost of sub-optimal performance and increased cost and complexity."

HP, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about the future of blades.

"HP envisions the future of blades as an environment where everything — not just servers — can be bladed," says Mark Potter, vice president HP BladeSystem. "The HP concept of designing a blade infrastructure where everything is bladed will have profound implications for how customers implement technologies throughout their organizations."

Gartner research director Jane Wright believes the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. Rackmount servers, she says, are still better for most applications. She cites three key reasons for switching from rackmount to blade servers:

  • High performance computing (HPC) clusters — HPC clients with clusters, when replacing aging rackmount equipment, are switching to blades to achieve greater density.
  • Web applications — This includes external facing customer applications, as well as services provided to mobile employees or those accessing the wireless networks. These types of applications run well on small Windows or Linux blade servers.
  • Cost — In some instances, customers can save money by filling up a chassis with blades and then sharing the networking and storage.

Further fueling the growth is that earlier problems with cooling seem to have been addressed.

"Two years ago when I would speak to clients on the phone, I would regularly hear of blade servers overheating and shutting down," says Wright. "Lately I haven't been hearing that."

She attributes this to vendors improving cooling designs and switching to more efficient dual core or Opteron processors as well as customers managing their expectations for how much density they can realistically achieve.

"Customers have helped by seeing that they can't fill a whole rack with blades," she says. "They are still filling the blade chassis, but they are only putting about three chassis in a rack."

Blades may not be appropriate in all cases, however. Although Garner expects blade penetration to continue to rise, it doesn't foresee them occupying more than 20 percent of server real estate in the data center by 2010.

"We recommend clients reserve blades for certain applications, such as Web serving, high performance computing, terminal servicing and distributed applications," she says. "We don't feel comfortable putting heavy database applications on blades, and middle-tier applications we look at on a case-by-case basis."

The Heavyweights

Most of the major server vendors have a server blade offering. IBM, for example, released a new enclosure called BladeCenter H in February. It supports 4X InfiniBand and 10 Gb Ethernet. Other blade products include Dell's PowerEdge 1855, which holds up to 10 Xeon-based blades in a 7U enclosure, and a recently released blade from Fujitsu that holds up to eight dual-core Opterons on a single blade.

HP's BladeSystem integrates the hardware, management, virtualization, and services. This enables customers to deploy multiple CPU and I/O generations, rather than upgrading the entire setup.

"The key to this fully bladed future is standards," says Potter. "HP's standards-based approach will offer unified management and consistent interconnectivity so blades can be deployed across the data canter with even greater efficiency and ease."

To address the power and cooling issues associated with blades, HP is releasing a new infrastructure this summer that will incorporate a new fan design. Called the HP Active Cool Fan, its design is based on radio-controlled airplane engines.

"HP research has found that for every dollar spent on IT in the data center, companies spend a dollar or more to power and cool that equipment," says Potter. "Not only does the fan consume one-third of the power of existing fans (drastically reducing energy consumption), but it is 50 percent more effective in cooling."

Sun is perhaps the only remaining major vendor not on the blade bandwagon. Although it offers a line of blades for OEMs to use in carrier-grade, high-availability telecommunications applications, for data center applications it is sticking with rackmount until blade technology matures.

"With the economies of scale in enterprise computing, blades need to either be broadly accepted or die off," says McNerney. "We believe the performance, price, and flexibility found in rackmount servers today will continue to dominate until a better solution comes to market."

>> More Blade Offerings

Less Is More

Joining the major server vendors are an array of niche blade manufacturers addressing different aspects of the market, including Egenera, Penguin Computing, and Verari.

Egenera has been selling blades since 2001, but it targets strictly high-end applications. It uses both Xeon and Operton processors in its blades and supports Linux, Windows, and Solaris so users can run RISC/Unix applications.

"Most blades on the market are simply traditional servers packaged in a smaller, more convenient form factor," says Egenera vice president Susan Davis. "They may have some advantages in terms of floor space and cable reduction, but they do little to reduce data center complexity and cost. Egenera's systems were designed to address the larger issues in the data center — complexity, availability, the need for agility, and total cost of ownership."

This year, the company released the third generation of its BladeFrame technology, BladeFrame EX, which more than doubles previous I/O performance and provides a 10 Gb fabric. The BladeFrame product line combines diskless and stateless processing blades (they contain only processors and memory and therefore have no operating system or physical components that make them fixed resources) with a high-speed fabric and software that virtualizes compute, storage, and networking resources.

"This virtualization of data center resources means that servers are no longer tied to specific operating systems or applications and can be easily shared and automatically repurposed based on business priorities and service-level agreements," says Davis. "By turning servers from fixed resources into dynamic assets, enterprises can dramatically reduce the number they need, use a single server as backup for many servers, and reduce data center complexity by up to 80 percent."

The COTS Approach

Last June, Verari Systems introduced a new line of products called BladeRack 2. These come prewired and are designed to take 480V 3Phase power directly from the utility, rather than requiring separate equipment to transform the power first. The racks use Verari's patented Vertical Cooling Technology, which eliminates rack hot spots and improves HVAC efficiency by as much as 30 percent. Since the blades vent through the top of the rack, they don't require the data center to use a "hot aisle, cold aisle" layout, thus enabling more servers to fit in the same footprint.

"Today's data centers are critically limited by power and cooling capacities, design budgets, and the burden of implementing new architectures while running the existing platforms," says Mike LaPan, Verari's Marketing Operations Manager. "The best way to maximize overall compute power is to design the most efficient blade and rack architecture possible that maximizes data center power capacity and improves airflow and cooling efficiencies."

Two of Verari's more popular blades for the new rack are the VB1205 and the VB1507. The VB1205, designed for HPC and data center installations, has Intel Xeon (up to 2.8 GHz) processors with an 800 MHz front side bus and up to 8 GB of DDR RAM. High-speed connection options include InfiniBand and Myricom Myrinet. The VB1507 uses AMD's Opteron processors and contains up to 16 GB of DDR memory. They come with dual-integrated gigabit Ethernet ports. The Verari Blades use Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) components, reducing cost and time to market.

"Many of the changes from our competition have involved proprietary technologies that not only extend a vendor's time to market but also eliminate the value proposition associated with commercial off-the-shelf components and have compromised cross-compatibility to existing blades," says LaPan. "The use of COTS components is yet another differentiating factor that sets us apart form our competition."

Linux Clusters

San Francisco's Penguin Computing makes BladeRunner, a 4U 12-blade Linux system that uses Xeon or Opteron processors.

"BladeRunner is the densest blade server solution on the market," says Pauline Nist, senior vice president, Product Development and Management. "It also offers the lowest power consumption per processor, which is critical to effectively taking advantage of the density increases offered by blades."

She says that the blades consume half the power and cooling of traditional 1U servers, resulting in a significant drop in total cost of ownership. The blades are used for Web hosting applications, enterprise applications, server consolidation, and extremely dense HPC clusters using Scyld ClusterWare, Penguin's cluster operating system. This past year a 64-bit version of BladeRunner came out, and a new version is scheduled for 2007. This version will keep the same form factor.

"The blade servers themselves will be updated to take advantage of the new processor technologies being introduced by Intel and AMD in the second half of 2006," sys Nist. "In 2007, additional upgrades to the chassis and switch infrastructure of BladeRunner are planned."

Beyond the Blade

In evaluating blade servers, Wright recommends looking at the entire ecosystem rather than just the price and performance of the blades themselves. The networking and storage teams should also be brought in to ensure that the blades exactly match the standards the company has adopted in those areas and don't require a slightly different model or spec. In addition, make sure the management tools meet the organization's needs, are easy to use, and integrate with other systems in use. If the tool that the hardware vendor supplies doesn't fit, find a third-party one that will.

"I tell clients not to just rely on the vendor's demo but to pilot it for themselves," she says. "It is a hardware decision, but the software is an integral part, and they should check that out as well."

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