Blade runner

With the average IT infrastructure reeling from spiraling administration and maintenance costs, a growing number of IT managers are focused on consolidating their technology resources. In particular, they are looking at ways in which they can simplify and streamline their storage and server environments.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  July 4, 2004

|~|FSC_Ashraf_El_Arabaty.gif|~|Ashraf Al Arabaty, enterprise product marketing manager, for Fujitsu Siemens Computers MENA.|~|With the average IT infrastructure reeling from spiraling administration and maintenance costs, a growing number of IT managers are focused on consolidating their technology resources. In particular, they are looking at ways in which they can simplify and streamline their storage and server environments, as these areas often suffer from greater complexity and are an obvious place to start. In an attempt to tap into this demand and provide IT managers with the equipment they require, an increasing number of server vendors are investing in a new breed of servers — blades. Blade servers are essentially ultra-dense breadbox size servers. Each blade fits into a bay within the server chassis so that they look like books in a bookshelf. Individual blades are self-contained servers running their own processors, memory, storage, network controllers, operating system and applications. Most server blades include some level of local disk storage and can also access external storage solutions such as storage area networks (SANs) or network attached storage (NAS). Since each blade is an individual server, the chassis can be used to consolidate multiple applications in a single box. “Blade servers take up less space than rack mounted servers and they cost less. At the same time, they provide the same functionality as equivalent rack mounted servers and they open the road to storage consolidation, which is very cost effective,” says Vakis Chimonides, product director, NEC Middle East. The slim, hot swappable blade servers plug into a mid-or-back plane and share peripherals and resources with other blade servers. By utilising centralised cooling and power system, users can deploy a mix of blades within a single environment. Network administrators can also designate individual blades for different applications, while support staff can insert or remove them without affecting the operation of other blades. “With blades, even a non-technical person can just plug in the blade, while support and administration can be done remotely,” says Ferhad Patel, strategic alliance manager, Intel, MENA. In terms of space alone, server blades promise to increase server density by 100-800% compared to the traditional 1U rack-optimised servers, depending on the design and vendor from which they are sourced. As such, vendors are confident that the market is about to take off. “2004 has been the breakaway year for blades, with more interest from customers than before. It’s become a hot topic and customers want to know how they [blade servers] will fit into their IT environment. This year we’ll see the big numbers approaching for blades,” says Andy Nehme, ISS sales manager, HP Middle East. Sensing the market opportunity offered by blade technology, the major server vendors, including HP, Dell, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Fujitsu Siemens, NEC and Acer, are all ramping up their blade server lines. While the technology and proof of concept have been in the market place for more than three years, it is only now that vendors are reporting increased customer interest, thanks to product maturity and lower costs. “[In the past,] customers looked at servers for just price performance, but now they are adding the foot print metric. Some customers are really short on real estate in their data centres. With blades, users get more processing power on a smaller footprint,” explains John Foster, product manager for Sun Microsystems in the South Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa region. “In Europe and North America, the cost of space and power consumption in the data centre is considered an important factor. It’s a real incentive for them to move to blade servers. We see that trend moving towards the Middle East markets gradually,” adds Ashraf Al Arabaty, enterprise product marketing manager, for Fujitsu Siemens Computers MENA Although blade technology is bleeding edge, the shipment numbers and customer references for blades are yet to reach critical mass. For instance, according to IDC’s recent forecast for the Gulf States, 29,000 servers will be shipped this year and traditional rack mounted servers will still account for 95% of sales. “It [blade server shipments] is not very high. For regular deployment, you are looking at a few hundred-blade servers to be shipped this year — not thousands,” concedes Foster. The limited local uptake of blades is relative though, as globally only 358,000 blade servers, worth US$1.2 billion, will be shipped this year. As the overall server market will see 5.3 million units shipped in total during 2004, the impact of blades on market figures remains minimal. One factor holding back adoption is compatibility. Currently, blades from one vendor cannot be plugged into the chassis of a competing vendor. In other words, they still lack the plug and play maturity of matured server lines. Similarly, a lack of standards is also stemming adoption. “One of the primary problems with blade technology is that we do not have an industry standard in place — whichever vendor a customer chooses, they are buying into proprietary technology. The real reason is absence of standards on the back plane, the chassis, the I/O, each vendor has a unique interconnect, that is specific to the vendor’s product line,” explains James McMahon, enterprise product manager for Dell in Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA). ||**|||~|dell_Jim McMahon2.jpg|~|James McMahon, enterprise product manager for Dell in Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA). |~|“In an ideal world it would be fantastic if we all plug and play our blades. At the moment, it doesn’t look like a standard will come between all the blade manufacturers. Lot of customers want to move a mix of open source and open standards. If the technology is proprietary then they may shy away from purchasing it,” adds Foster. Although some server vendors have started to publish the specifications of their chassis and blade architecture to allow third parties to build licensed products, most manufacturers are relying on connectivity solutions to solve the compatibility issues. Among those currently being backed as possible solutions are Infiniband, Myrinet, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Ethernet jumbo frames and fibre channel. Each of these improve the inter-connect architecture between servers and storage devices helping pump more data and back and forth the network and eliminate current bottlenecks. “We are excited about the blade market for the next 12-18 months. With 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Infiniband interconnects and second generation multithreaded processors emerging, [blades] will eat into traditional rack mounted servers,” says Foster. Other technologies such as Sun’s N1, EMC’s VMWare and IBM’s new virtualisation engine are also being seen as solutions to the compatibility issues facing blade servers. All three technologies allow end users to create micro-partitions, which means enterprises can run as many as ten different server operating systems per microprocessor and turn a basic four-processor blade server into a 40-way system, for example. While blade servers, with their ability to minimise administration; optimise real estate space and cut peripheral costs, should be a boon for customers once compatibility issues have been addressed, they will also impact on vendors. On the plus side, blades could reduce the sales cycle drastically for vendors as customers can upgrade processing power as they go rather than carrying out the protracted negotiations that surround the purchase of big iron servers. However, on the downside, the commoditisation of the server environments means customers will be spending less, both on the units themselves and the peripherals that surround them. “If vendors are used to selling servers in large volumes, then blades are a nightmare [for the vendor]… The whole goal of blades is to sharing resources and efficiency, [by using] one video memory and one storage box for 14 servers. It cuts down the sales from peripherals and resources. Customers used to buying in bulk will now upgrade as they need,” says Tikiri Wanduragala, xSeries consultant for IBM in the EMEA region. “Blades and virtualised machines create different operating models [for the vendor] and for the customer. If customers are getting more from less and increased efficiency, and spending less on upgrades, at a fraction of the cost then they will come to the vendors less,” he adds. However, due to the small shipment numbers currently attached to blade servers, vendors are confident that they will not create a dent in their sales just yet. Furthermore, many believe a hybrid environment, where rack mounted servers and blades coexist, will emerge in the short term. Additionally, with the average price of a blade starting at US$1600, many say the tangible benefits both for the customer and the vendors will only come in when the blade market kicks into economy of scale. “If you deploy five processors in a rack mounted unit, then that is the cross over point. When you put in five blades in a chassis, it becomes more cost effective to move to the blade environment. We recommend rack mounted servers if its less than five processors. More than five, then we recommend blade servers, as its economy of scale and cost effective. All they do is just keep adding US$2000 blades since they already have the chassis in place,” explains Foster. In the long-term, however, blade servers will become mainstream as enterprises continue to pursue strategies that cut maintenance costs. As HP’s Nehme says, “there will be a shift from existing servers sold to the blade server line. It’s not a flash in the pan technology… It’ll simply be an evolution from what customers are buying now to what customers will buy in the future.” ||**||

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