A year ago, server blades were the "in" thing. Tech magazine gave them extensive coverage. IDC boldly predicted they would hit $9 billion in sales by 2008 and account for 29 percent of server units that ship. The 2003 total of $583 million seemed to confirm this in its big jump from $90 million the year before.
But this year, the market hit some stumbling blocks. Growth has slowed considerably, and manageability has become an issue. Gartner's consistently conservative forecasts about server blades look to have hit closer to the mark. The research firm forecasts that sales won't break $1 billion in 2004, and by 2008, server blade revenue will be around $2.5 billion. While this is healthy enough expansion, these numbers suggest blades will not become the standard footprint in the server room that some predicted.
"Blades are not a general-purpose server replacement," said Gartner analyst John Enck. "They are best for specific workloads such as Web farms and high-performance computing farms."
In the Driver's Seat
HP and IBM continue to lead the market, although it's hard to pin down which one is the main trail blazer. Depending on whom is asked and how the numbers are churned, one or the other comes out ahead by a hair. Their combined shared is significant; collectively, the two vendors capture as much as 75 percent of blade revenue.
HP was the first vendor to respond broadly to user demand for greater manageability. As many organizations adopting blades have come to learn, the initial blade hype about virtualization and rapid replacement turned out to be misleading. Scripting and considerable effort are necessary to manage blades and enable them to interact well with the rest of IT environment.
Enter HP BladeSystem, a package of hardware, software, and services HP has built around its blade offerings and unwrapped just last week.
"Customers have been asking for a complete system that addresses management, virtualization, and an overall approach to blades," said Rick Becker, the newly named vice president and general manager of HP's BladeSystem Division. "The BladeSystem infrastructure is one track to drive ownership costs down by 25 percent."
This new packaging for HP's blades ties it firmly into the vendor's Adaptive Enterprise strategy. As an example, Becker talks about the possibility of using a blade server farm to consolidate user desktop licenses. Say there are 1,000 desktop users in a company, but only 500 are ever logged on at any one time. Instead of requiring 1,000 desktop licenses, blade virtualization would mean only 600 licenses are needed, and HP BladeSystem manages each new log-on to ensure it is connected to the next available blade, rather than having to dedicate hardware and software to each user.
In terms of the blades themselves, the main change in BladeSystem is that in HP's high performance p-class blade, the Xeon processors can change clock speed at start up to a lower heat rate (with a small performance hit). HP Insight Manager software controls this by decreasing or increasing clock speed based on utilization rates. According to Becker, this results in a 20-precent savings on the power and cooling bills.
Meanwhile, IBM released a similar program called BladeCenter Standby Capacity on Demand. IBM also added Intel Xeon EM64T (Extended Memory 64-bit Technology) chips to its blade server options, tuned its high-performance POWER5 microprocessor blades for Linux, and integrated IBM BladeCenter with Brocade and Cisco-based SAN equipment and software. The latter makes it far easier to use blades in a SAN.
Perhaps the most controversial IBM blade development, concerned a standardization deal between IBM and Intel under which the two vendors agreed to open the design specifications of the BladeCenter system to interested third parties. Although loudly trumpeted by both companies, rivals and analysts have questioned BladeCenter's qualifications as a true industry standard.
"While Intel and IBM are trying to create a de-facto standard, this is not truly an industry standard," said Enck. "Blade technology remains highly proprietary and will remain so for many years."