Blade Servers Buyer's Guide, x86 Edition

by Drew Robb

Looking to buy x86 blade servers? Here's what HP, IBM, Dell and Fujitsu have to offer.

More about blade servers

In this two-part series, ServerWatch will showcase and attempt to compare and contrast the various blade servers from the primary vendors. Here, in Part One, we over x86 blades; Part Two will take up the rest, including IBM POWER, HP Integrity and SPARC blades.

Let's begin with a general overview of the blade phenomenon. A recent IDC survey found that blade growth comes largely from the data center and is the fuel behind rapid adoption of virtualization. More than two-thirds of blade servers reside within a data center, rather than a server room or closet, and blades are 38 percent virtualized, which is nearly twice the rate for the overall server market.

"Blades will continue to be an engine of growth for the server industry," said Jed Scaramella, an analyst at IDC. "IT organizations are realizing that blade technologies can help optimize their IT environments to keep pace with ever-changing business demands while simultaneously simplifying their IT infrastructure and improving asset utilization, IT flexibility and energy efficiency."

The last server market overview by IDC showed blade servers to be the one bright spot in a struggling server sector. The segment had a 30.9 percent increase in revenue and an 8.3 percent hike in unit shipments. In the x86 space (87 percent of the blade market), blades garnered an impressive 21.4 percent of all x86 server revenue.

Not surprisingly, there are many blade servers from which to choose. This guide won't cover everything, but it encompasses about 95 percent of the market, based on unit sales.

HP Rules the Blade Servers

IDC puts HP firmly in pole position in the great blade race, with a more than 50 percent share in revenue. According to Daniel Bowers, HP BladeSystem Product Marketing Manager, the company offers eight x86 blade servers:

  • HP ProLiant BL280c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL2x220c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL460c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant WS460c G6 Workstation Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL465c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL490c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL495c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL685c G6 Server Blade

They cover the gamut, spanning the latest AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon processors, along with a wide variety of I/O and network interconnect alternatives. They also come with Integrated Lights Out, multiple redundant features, embedded RAID controllers, and more. Both 2- and 4-processor models are available.

The BL280c, for example has one or two Xeon 5500/5600 processors. For a starting price of $1,509, you get one E5502 processor, 2GB memory, two integrated 1GbE network ports and an integrated SATA RAID controller, but no hard drive. As well as general data center duty, Bowers said this model is good for SMEs that want to consolidate all business apps, messaging and file sharing into a bladed environment at a low acquisition price.

A good midrange model using AMD Opteron is the BL495c, which seems to be aimed more at virtual environments. A starting configuration with one Opteron 2427 processor, 4GB of memory, integrated dual-port 10GbE network controller, integrated SATA controller and no hard drives is priced at $2,259.

At the high end, HP also offers both Xeon and Opteron models. The BL685c comes with two Opteron 8387 processors, 8GB of memory, two integrated dual-port 10GbE network controllers, an integrated SAS RAID controller with 512MB of cache, and no hard drives for $9,289. Bowers recommends this machine for virtualization, database, transaction processing and other scale-up workloads requiring lots of compute power.

The BL2x220c, on the other hand, has a starting price of $9,679 and is replete with two server nodes, each with two Xeon E5530 processors, 24GB of memory, two integrated 1GbE network ports, integrated SATA RAID controller and no hard drive. Bowers sees this as ideal for Top500 supercomputer environments in the oil and gas, life sciences, and animation rendering areas.

"Carefully choose your architecture before selecting a server blade," said Bowers. "Each vendor has a different architecture, which means that server blades from one vendor are not compatible with the blade enclosures from a different vendor."

He also advises users to look for blade servers that use the same components and management tools already in use on rack and tower servers. This will eliminate the need to create new processes, stock unique spares or learn new management tools. Further, pay close attention to power type, density and network capacity in the facility. Although blade servers are generally more power efficient that traditional rack servers, they can introduce higher server densities into the data center. Some users, for example, eagerly purchase blades only to find they lack the power to run them all. The HP BladeSystem Power Sizer is one tool that can help eliminate such errors.

Now for the big question: Why buy HP blade servers? Bowers sites the company's market leading position in blades for 12 consecutive quarters (HP has shipped nearly 2 million blades to date), the fact that HP BladeSystem is the most used platform on the Top500 Supercomputer list and density. The BL2x220c G6, he said, achieves the highest density of computing for any blade architecture, with up to 32 servers in 10U of space. Further, these G6 server blades include embedded 10Gb network controllers. No other blade vendor embeds 10Gb controllers.

Big Blue Number Two

IBM holds the No. 2 spot in blades with 28.4 percent revenue share, per IDC. IBM is gaining ground with revenue growth of 64.1 percent, and gaining 5.7 points of blade market share in the last quarter of 2009. Big Blue has almost as many x86 blades for sale as HP. Again, these are both Intel and AMD-based blades, as well as one, two or four-socket flavors.
  • BladeCenter HS12
  • BladeCenter HX5
  • BladeCenter HS22V
  • BladeCenter HS22
  • BladeCenter LS42
  • BladeCenter LS22

Surprise, surprise, the IBM BladeCenter HS12 is actually less expensive than HP's lower-end BL280c with a base price of $929. But when you go to configure it at the IBM web site, it's hard to get the price down below $1,291. That's for a system with a dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1.86GHz), 4 GB memory and no hard drives. The more memory than the HP machine but a less robust processor. If you want to change to a quad-core Xeon X3323 in the HS12, add another $479 to the price tag.

Making a try at an apples-to-apples comparison, the BladeCenter HS22 has the Xeon 5600 and 5500 processors (like the HP BL280c). A blade with roughly the same specs as the basic HP model came up at $2,284. This may be due to better warranty terms with IBM or simply that it is a more expensive server –- the devil obviously is in the details. So don't rush into shopping decisions without seeing what the machines will cost in your environment, including warranty, interconnects and chassis. The IBM site also doesn't help, as it lists dozens of configurations for the HS22, from around $2,200 up to $5,000. According to Bob Zubor, a manager for IBM System x servers, the starting price of the HS22 is $1,479. (However, if anyone can actually get the IBM configuration engine to spit out that price, send me the link for the server.)

The LS42 competes in a similar space with the HP BL685c –- at the higher end. It has two Opteron Model 8347 processors, 4GB of memory, no hard drives and a price of $6,379.

Zubor advises prospective blade buyers to watch out for the amount of memory available in the system, as this is usually the big bottleneck, particularly with virtualized environments. In addition, he talks about I/O flexibility.

"Look for blades that offer the most memory through flexible add-on features, such as the new MAX5 memory expansion solution," said Zubor. "Our BladeCenter chassis and blades support not only 1Gb ethernet, but [also] 10Gb ethernet, 4x Infiniband and Virtual Fabric."

So why are IBM blade servers best? Zubor highlights their redundancy features as well as the amount of memory available via MAX5 modules that take the place of one blade yet add a lot more memory. As a result, customers have enough memory for demanding workloads, which sometimes means they can purchase blades with fewer sockets (at lower cost) without affecting performance.

"You can attach the MAX5 memory expansion to the base 2 socket HX5 blade and get a total of 40 DIMM slots in the blade, or you can attach a second base HX5 blade and scale the system up to a four-socket blade server," said Zubor. "Another scalability option is to combine two base HX5 blades and 2 MAX5 expansions for an unprecedented four-socket/80DIMMS blade server."

Best of the Rest

Between them, HP and IBM have already carved up 80 percent of the blade sector. Plenty of other options remain, however. Take the case of Dell with its six x86 systems:

  • M605 – 2 socket AMD based blade, 8 DIMM slots, 2 hot swap hard drives
  • M610 – 2 socket Intel based blade, 12 DIMM slots, 2 hot swap hard drives
  • M710 – 2 socket Intel based blade, 18 DIMM slots, 4 hot swap hard drives
  • M805 -2 socket AMD based blade, 16 DIMM slots, 2 hot swap hard drives
  • M905 – 4 socket AMD based blade, 24 DIMM slots, 2 hot swap hard drives
  • M910 – 2 socket/4 socket scalable Intel based blade, 32 DIMM slots, 2 hot swap hard drives

"The Dell M Series offers a broad range of x86 blades with a variety of form factors allowing customers to choose the I/O, processor type, memory and hard drive expandability that best fits their environment," said Mike Roberts, product manager, Dell PowerEdge Blades.

Where Dell brings real value to the market is price. The M605 noted above, for example, costs $1,065 for a model with quad-core Opteron 2378 processors, 2 GB of memory and no hard drives. IBM and HP struggle to compete with that. When you add a second processor and double the memory, it still costs only $1,377.

Apart from price, why are Dell blades the best choice? Roberts talks about best-in-class power and cooling efficiency, lowest cost of LAN/SAN connectivity, lower opex and flexibility.

"The M910 is the only blade on the market that has the flexibility to be an ultra-high memory, I/O, core count two-socket blade that can scale (without adding expensive expansion modules) to a four-socket design with Dell's patent-pending FlexMem Bridge technology," said Roberts.

Fujitsu, in the meantime, also offers plenty of x86 server options in the form of its BX600 series and the BX900 series. The BX620 S6 blade start5s at $1,720 and uses Xeon 5500/5600 processors. The BX920 S2 server blade starts at $2,072 and uses the same Xeon processors.

"On a per-blade basis, there are more similarities than not between x86 blade vendors, so the selection criteria moves upward to chassis features/density and the power and cooling envelope," said Richard McCormack, senior vice president of server and solutions business, Fujitsu America. "Both the BX600 and the BX900 offer superior power and cooling on a per-blade basis. The BX600, because it supports 10 blades in 7U size, can be an excellent choice for space-constrained customers. Both are very quiet in operation."

Finally, Oracle continues to offer two Xeon-based blades (Sun Blade X6275 Server Module and Sun Blade X6270 Server Module), and two Opteron blades (Sun Blade X6440 Server Module and Sun Blade X6240 Server Module).

x86 Blade Server Choices at a Glance

HP ProLiant
Name HP ProLiant Blade Servers IBM BladeCenter Servers PowerEdge Blade Servers Fujitsu Servers Oracle Sun Blades
Description x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers
Target Deployment Small and Medium-size business Small and Medium-size business Small and Medium-size business Small and Medium-size business Small and Medium-size business
Processor Type Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron
Servers HP ProLiant BL280c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant BL2x220c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant BL460c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant WS460c G6 Workstation Blade
HP ProLiant BL465c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant BL490c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant BL495c G6 Server Blade
HP ProLiant BL685c G6 Server Blade
IBM BladeCenter
BladeCenter HS12
BladeCenter HX5
BladeCenter HS22V
BladeCenter HS22
BladeCenter LS42
BladeCenter LS22
Dell PowerEdge Blade Server
M605 PowerEdge Blade Server
M610 PowerEdge Blade Server
M710 PowerEdge Blade Server
M805 PowerEdge Blade Server
M905 PowerEdge Blade Server
M910 PowerEdge Blade Server
Fujitsu Servers
Oracle Sun Blades
Sun Blade X6275 Server Module
Sun Blade X6270 Server Module
Sun Blade Server Module X6440 Server Module
Sun Blade X6240 Server Module

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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This article was originally published on Friday Jun 4th 2010
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