Battle of the blades

Blade servers are winning the hype war, but losing when it comes to actual deployments. ACN looks at some of the critical blade issues, and at what regional enterprises really want in a server.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  September 9, 2007

To believe the hype, any IT manager without blade servers in their datacentre might be forgiven for thinking that they were way behind the times.

A number of companies - with HP and IBM in the forefront - are pushing blades as the answer to a host of problems - space, management, efficiency, reliability. Buy blades, the marketing subtly suggests, and all your server problems will be solved.

All of a sudden, over from an 80-20 split, in favour of rack-mount queries, we’re now seeing the same split in favour of blades.

For some, the hype has certainly worked. According to vendors, more and more potential customers are asking for proposals built around blades at the start of the sales process. Opinions differ as to how many start off with blades, but there is no doubt the number is rising steadily in the Middle East.

Basil Ayass, systems sales specialist for MENA at Sun Microsystems, has seen a dramatic rise in interest around blade servers: "We see that customers are leaning more towards the blade market now - most of the requests that we get are specifically around blades. And blades are overhyped at the moment - all of a sudden, over one year in the Middle East, from an 80-20 split, in favour of rack-mounts, we're now seeing the same split in favour of blades, in terms of queries."

The reality is somewhat different. Blade sales are growing - faster than rack-mount sales, and certainly faster than other form factors, which are now in decline. But the blade form factor - as most market-aware professionals will know - is still a niche segment.

According to IDC figures released last month, EMEA server sales totalled US$4.1 billion in the second quarter of 2007 - of this blade sales made up $300 million: just over 7% of the total market. IDC notes that blade sales are growing at around 12% - the market overall is growing at only 8%. With blade sales starting at such a low percentage of the overall market, this suggests that the overall proportion of blade servers being shipped is not going to change radically for some more time.

This confirms the experience of vendors, which see many customer queries become diverted from blades over the course of the sales cycle. Dell - which has recently taken a very public step back from blades as a catch-all solution - certainly sees significant numbers of customers move from blades to many other server technologies.

"You would be amazed - we have customers which come in through partners, saying ‘we want blades'. Often it's a configuration we don't have, or don't supply or support. So we start to question things, first with the partner - have they sat down with the customer and tried to figure out what they're actually trying to achieve?" explains Jul Johanson, solution manager at Dell Middle East.

"In most cases, we will ask for a meeting with the customer, because we will have a different view. We will almost always get a meeting - and from time to time we will turn the game, and move it away from blades," he adds.

The blade/rack-mount debate comes at a critical time for regional enterprises - as more regional organisations embark on expensive datacentre projects, the choice of servers is one of the most critical decisions business and IT managers will need to make.

Blades have a very clear and well-argued case - with space and I/O and power all becoming increasingly tight, blade servers offer a much denser and more resource-efficient system than rack-mounts. Effectively smaller servers rotated 90 degrees and with a shared and standard I/O and power infrastructure, blades promise to maximise the computer capacity of any particular volume of space.

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