Hardware Today: Is the Server Blade Honeymoon Over?

by Drew Robb

Last year, server blades were the tech industry's darling. Will this year's slow growth and domination by market behemoths cause the festivities to crash?

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."

>> Blade Server Options

Dude, You're Not Getting a Dell

As IBM and HP take up the banner as server blade leaders, some vendors fall to the side lines. Dell, for example, has disappeared off the server blade radar screen this year. If you go to Dell's site, the page for PowerEdge 1655 MC blades comes up as "not available." Dell does, however, expect to re-enter the market by early 2005.

In Dell's place have come several established vendors with strong blade offerings. Fujitsu grabbed a 3 percent share of blade revenue with its Primergy BX600, while the Sun Fire Blade Server Platform captured 10 percent market share since its release in early 2003. Sun currently offers 1- and 2-processor blades running Linux or SPARC Solaris.

"Our big seller is a 1P offering that is popular with service providers," said David Lawler, Sun's group marketing manager. "This is an edge computing rather than a general-purpose blade. It is most suitable for functions such as Web services DNS, reverse proxy cache, and streaming media."

Finally, come the dedicated blade vendors: Egenera and RLX. Despite being the first to market as well as being the subject of significant media coverage, neither has more than a 1 percent market share. Egenera, for example, doesn't even merit a mention in Gartner's worldwide blade server pie chart. Both Egenera and RLX recently added Intel EM64T to their blades.

Server Blade Options

Vendor ChassisMax No. of
Blades per
Form Factor
Blade ModelsProcessorsTargetsVendor Perks
IBMBladeCenter14 per 7UHS20, HS40, JS2032-bit and 64-bit Xeon, 64-bit Power 970High-end, mission-critical deploymentsPower 64-bit option; IBM's mainframe experience; Partnership with Intel
HPProLiant BL e and ProLiant BL p20 per 3U 8 Xeon DP or 2 Xeon MP per 7UBL 10e G2, BL20p G3, BL30p, BL40pPentium M and XeonLow-end edge, and high-performance computing appsVaried approach; BladeSystem manageability; desktop options
SunSun Fire B1600 Blade System Chassis16 slots per 3UB100s, B100x, B200x, B10n, B10pUp to 2 Ultra SPARC, Athlon or Xeon processors; 32- and 64-bitLow-end edge computing and high-performanceChoice of Linux or Solaris; choice of processors; load balancing and SSL Proxy blades available
FujitsuPrimergy BXUp to 20 blades in a 3U enclosureBX600, BX300Xeon MP, Pentium III, Pentium MLow-end and high-performance needsChoice of low-end and high-performance models
EgeneraBladeFrame24 2-way or 4-way servers per enclosureCblade, Pblade, and SbladeCblades and Sblades are networking and storage components; Pblades use 32-bit Xeon DP or MP, and Xeon EM64THigh end, financial services, with Processing Area Network (PAN) manager softwareTime in market; well-developed PAN manager; storage and network layers; offers more compact BladeFrame ES model
RLX300ex and 600ex24 1-way per 3U or 10 2-way per 6U800i, 1200i, 2600ie, 2800i, 2800ie, 3000i, 3000ix, 3200ixPentium III, DP Xeons (including EM64T)Dense blade for those with spatial constraints or high-performance needsTime in market; number of models; variety of processor options; strong, Control Tower management software

Better Management Is Coming

Due to the lack of management flexibility and interoperability issues among the current crop of blade servers, Gartner recommends blade deployments be based on a two- to three-year return on investment. Further, vendor choice should be based on integration with the current or proposed infrastructure to better ensure the blades will play well with the storage and networking environment.

"By next year, we should see some major strides in terms of server blade manageability," said Gartner's Enck. "But in any case, test any proposed blade technology to see just how manageable it really is."

This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 28th 2004
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