blade servers provide the right mix of high rack density
and computing power. Here's a look at the guises of
blades to come. by Ong Boon Kiat
first-generation blade servers herald density above
performance, second-generation onescurrently shipped
by major vendorssignal a more mainstream approach.
While high rack densities are still important, vendors
are clearly less willing to forgo power to get there.
Consider Compaq's first generation blade, the Proliant
BL e-Class blade servers, which squeezed 20 serverseach
fitted with a 700 MHz Ultra-low voltage Intel Pentium
III chipinto a 3U rack. In stark contrast, Hewlett-Packard's
latest Proliant BL p-Class (essentially a Compaq-inherited
product) now packs only eight servers in 6U, but comes
with regular 1.4 GHz Pentium III processors and dual-processor
Following HP in using mainstream (as opposed to low-voltage)
processors is IBM. It recently launched the Blade Center,
a dual-Xeon capable blade server. Compared to the HP
p-Class blade, its obvious direct rival, the Blade Center
packs a higher server count: Up to 14 servers in a 7U
rack. Dell's upcoming and first blade product, the PowerEdge
1655MC (targeted for launch next January), will house
six blades in 3U, and packs dual-1.3 GHz Intel Pentium
Blade servers like the Dell 1655MC, because they use
full-fledged processors and chipsets which need space
to breathe, are less dense. And when vendors suit up
their blades with heat-spewing quad-processor architecture
next year, expect even fatter blade servers to emerge.
So for MIS whose appetite is whetted by the promise
of reclaimed server room space, expectations may have
to be pegged back by next year. So what else can MIS
expect to see from this relatively infant technology
A blade is simply a chassis-less servermake
that many chassis-less servers bandied in a specially-designed
rack connected via a custom-made backplane.
The blade itself is the motherboard, which plugs
into the backplane. There are many standards for
connecting blade servers, like compact PCI (cPCI),
PCI-X or Fast Ethernet. Most are customized, like
HP's p-Class blades, which use 2 separate backplanes
Blades are largely identical, but can be configured
with more disk or processors to serve specific
functions, like a NAS or firewall.
Then there are the common resource components
for the blades, including cabling, power supplies
and cooling fans, which are shared by all blade
servers in the enclosure.
Stripping down and pooling hardware this way saves
money, although startup costs, which includes
the purchase of the rack, is higher than rack-mount
servers up to a "break-even" point,
usually five servers.
But the main enticement of blades is in its ease
of setup and aggregation compared to rack-mount
In particular, a powerful blade feature is its
ability to provision a fresh blade without an
administrator physically touching the server.
The result: True computing-on-demand, where blades
can be quickly transformed into Web, DNS or file
servers as required.
After flirting with low-voltage chips, blade vendors
are now retooling for conventional server processors.
They are also hoping to extend blade servers beyond
its initial edge-computing paradigm.
"Blades grew out of the need for densities in data
centers and this is not going away. But we now like
to take a more holistic approach to building blade servers,"
said Tony Parkinson, Manager-Product Marketing, Industry
Standard Servers, Enterprise Systems Group, Asia-Pacific,
Hewlett-Packard. This means building them for more conventional
server applications. He describes the p-Class servers
as suitable for ASP hosting, terminal server applications
and media streamingall heavy-duty chores.
Shashi b Mal, Brand Executive, eServer xSeries and Intellistation
Server Group, IBM ASEAN/SA believes that taking on the
role as real enterprise servers will be critical for
the viability of blade servers. He believes that blades
will find a wider niche because many enterprise applications,
such as Microsoft Exchange and Web servers like Apache
have "scale-out" requirements, which suits
blade servers to a tee.
Some application, though, will be ill-suited for blades.
For these, conventional servers or mainframes will be
better options, said Mal. One common example is Microsoft's
SQL Server, which can use up to 32 processors. Applications
like this have "scale-up" requirements and
are built to use multiple processor hardware and operating
Applications will also dictate whether blades can
take on a heavier load. This will likely take a while
since blade-optimized applications, especially those
of the distributive processing and deep server clustering
genre are not here yet. The signal, according to some
market watchers, will be when a huge enterprise presence
like Oracle becomes optimized on the multiple nodes
of blade servers rather than just one huge node of the
mainframe (or a large Unix server).
In the near term, most vendors are now looking at quad-processor
blades next year, but not much beyond that. As for Itanium
blades, most aren't even thinking about it yet, partly
because of the lack of applications. "There is
no value proposition for Itanium blades because there
is relatively little demand for IA-64 at the moment,"
said Damian Crotty, Director, Enterprise Servers, Server
CoC, APAC, Dell Computer Asia.
Dell, however, is prepping for a "super" blade
architecture that is slated for launch next year, coined
"brick". This will be a modular server architecture
that shares a blade-like backplane, but instead of identical
servers will feature specific modules customized for
processing, I/O, disk, etc.
"Bricks will be application powerhouses,"
said Crotty, adding that they will be targeted at mission-critical
applications like Oracle and SAP, and vertical industries
like the financial sector.
Sharpening storage blades
With storage being acknowledged as a business do-or-die,
it is not surprising that blade vendors are working
hard to fold advanced storage techniques into their
products. HP will be delivering direct SAN attach ports
(via fiber channel, or FC) early next year on its blade
backplane. Expect also other SAN interconnect standards
like Infiniband and iSCSI to appear late next year.
According to HP's Parkinson, true failover clustering
from server to disk will become possible with when FC
SAN connectivity arrives in its p-Class servers. And
working in tandem with server clustering over, say,
a Beowulf solution such as Scyld, this means that blade
servers can acquire robustness that will probably surpass
In fact, Parkinson believes that Infiniband, with a
switch-based architecture well suited a variety of hardware
standards, can drastically enhance the blade paradigm.
"With Infiniband, you get redundancy throughout,"
he said. This translates to a more robust server and
storage cluster with better load balancing capabilities.
And might a SAN itself be subsumed in a blade rack?
Already, vendors are offering blade modules that act
as dedicated storage devices. Dell's upcoming brick
server will take this further by separating processor
from disk. And with FC now being built into backplanes,
the storage potential for blades looks immense.
Besides the speed, form factor and processing power
components, intangible features like manageability and
server aggregation will also become better. In fact,
these "intangibles" are probably more important
for enterprises in the log run.
For many vendors, these are also the intangibles that
define their strategies. For instance, Sun's blade strategy
calls for a complete framework integration that encompasses
processor optimization (with SPARC microprocessors),
OS enhancements (with Solaris) and middleware availability
like Java, Grid Engine and SunONE. The idea is to have
integration beyond the racks of blades.
"The main aim is to achieve high efficiency,"
said Chong Soon Cheong, Senior Manager, Product Management,
Hardware, Asia South, Sun Microsystems. "We want
to create a multi-layered system management that ranges
from Blade, Shelf, Rack to Enterprise level will be
the basis for integration into the overall architectural
design." Good obviously, if you are using Sun hardware
or related applications.
HP touts Compaq's Insight Manager management software
as its crown jewel in its blade product. With it, MIS
can hot-swap disks (useful when retiring or reconfiguring
servers), populate applications using pre-configured
disk images and manage both HP blade and rack servers
using a common console.
Similarly, Dell points to manageability as the key selling
point for its blades. Dell's Crotty pointed to the 1655MC's
integrated management card and embedded KVM switch as
key highlights. The integrated management card provides
chassis and blade monitoring and remote power control,
whereas the OS independent keyboard, video, and mouse
(KVM) embedded switches enables remote console access.
And improving accessfrom networks, other blades
and hardwareis probably blade vendors' biggest
focus in the near future. Remember that blade is essentially
a distributed computing paradigm. Fostering an infrastructure
with lightning-fast access to devices will be key.
This article first appeared in Network
Computing - Asian Edition.