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Issue of August 2006 

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Server Update 2006

Blade server adoption rises as technology matures

Although blade servers have a long way to go before they can supplant rack-mounts, Anil Patrick R finds that the technology has stabilised leading to significant adoption

Although blade servers have had their limitations in the past, recent trends point to significant adoption due to increased maturity of the platform.

This view is also shared by Gartner’s India Server Revenue report for the third quarter of 2005. “Among recent launches, blade servers have started gaining traction in India,” says Naveen Mishra, Senior Analyst, Server Markets, Gartner India.

Rajesh Dhar
Country Manager, ISS
HP India Sales

One of the most interesting trends on this front is the emergence of two-way blades as the entry level product. Today two-way and four-way servers are the de facto choice in most new blade deployments. “Two-way blades have become attractive entry points for buyers looking at blade server options. For those going in for higher densities, four-way blades are a better option,” explains Rajesh Dhar, Country Manager, ISS, HP India Sales.

Blade drivers

As with the rest of the server spectrum, x86 is the biggest driver of the blade-o-sphere at present. When we take into consideration all the factors on this front, it is the increased capabilities of x86 and x86-64 platforms along with ongoing blade/chassis improvements that will drive adoption in 2006.

“The increased power consumption to performance ratio of the new x86 offerings is making blades a viable option in the enterprise. We will be enhancing the options on this front later in 2006,” states Narendra Bhandari, Regional Manager, APAC, Strategic Relations and Internet Solutions Group, Intel Asia Electronics.

Other features that are now available on the blade with x86 technology developments are many such as cluster capability for vertical scale-ups and x86-ready Unix. When taken in tandem these have the potential of increasing the blade server adoption during 2006.

“x86 on the blade is catching on fast at the moment. The dollar value per rack rises with these servers,” opines Mukund Ramaratnam, Director, Marketing and Business Development, AMD India.

For a sharper edge

First there’s the maturity of x86-64 and the availability of 64-bit Linux, Windows and Unix for the platform. This has resulted in many 64-bit applications that were in the RISC domain being ported on to x86-64 and migrated to blade environments.

Interlinked with the first reason is the scarcity of real estate in data centres. Blades are now capable of packing three to 10 times the computing power vis-à-vis conventional rack mounts.

Then there are advantages at the processor-end in terms of cooling and power consumption. Vendors have also been hard at work on their respective blade chassis for improvements in terms of higher memory management capabilities, easier management, lower power consumption, and greater value with cooling.

Looking at the issues that plagued blade servers earlier, they seem to have reduced.

Beyond x86

Adoption of RISC and IA-64 blades has been slower than that of their x86 counterparts. The rise of cheap commodity x86 servers has largely contributed to this.

Most organisations do not look for high density RISC environments— especially when you factor in the high costs of RISC blades. With the decreasing number of RISC options, this side of the blade spectrum is slow at the moment and likely to remain so. However, the only hopes on the blade front in this direction are the expected IBM Power 6 and Sun UltraSPARC T2 processors.

Similarly in the case of IA-64 blades, Intel is banking on the Montecito dual core Itanium 2 processor launch.

Problems resolved

First and foremost are thermal issues. Having so much condensed computing power equates to the need for cooling systems that can combat the concomitant heat build up. Next is power consumption, again caused due to higher densities. Noise was an issue as was the proprietary nature of each vendor’s blade solution.

This is one of the reasons why earlier blade implementations literally meant having a dedicated room for blade servers in the data centre. These dedicated sections catered to the higher cooling and power considerations demanded by these platforms.

These were some of the limitations that kept enterprises from adopting blade platforms earlier. This is where the newer processors and blade chassis’ help.

New-Gen sharpness

First of all, every new generation of x86 and RISC processor is coming out with thermal envelopes that are smaller than those of their predecessors.

A concern area getting addressed on the blade front is power consumption. CPU vendors are focussing on squeezing more performance per watt which is good news for the buyer.
Some of the best examples for these are the new Intel ‘Woodcrest’ Xeons and AMD Opterons

The next concern area that is getting addressed is power consumption. CPU vendors are focussing on squeezing more performance per watt which is good news for the buyer. Some of the best examples for these are the new Intel ‘Woodcrest’ Xeons and AMD Opterons.

Both these x86 platforms come with thermal characteristics that are favourable for blade deployments. For example, the AMD Opterons have maximum power consumption in the region of 85 watts with newer versions expected to consume less power. Intel’s Woodcrest series has Thermal Design Power (TDP) values in the range of 65 to 80 Watts.

“Packing so much computing power into such limited spaces dictates that we should focus on reducing generation of heat as well as issues relating to power consumption. That’s why we now focus more on reduction of the overall power to performance ratio than just CPU power,” says Ramaratnam.

One of the ways in which CPU vendors have managed to achieve this is through the use of increasing the number of cores per processor. This helps increase thread-processing capabilities thereby boosting performance without increasing power consumption or heat generation.

A significant factor this year is that newer versions of both CPUs will be hitting the shelves. This year is also expected to see a Woodcrest LV TDP that will sip 40 Watts. With Intel looking at quad-core (expected in early 2007) and even 8-core Woodcrest CPUs, there are exciting times ahead on the blade front.

Blade vendors have also come up with significant enhancements on the chassis front. One of the interesting developments is HP’s Active Cool fan and Parsec blade architecture. “We have been able to achieve a power consumption of just 100 Watts for eight to 10 fans per enclosure. Our Parsec architecture has also helped us achieve lower power consumption,” explains Dhar. Precision air conditioning customised for blade environments is also in vogue.

Chassis sizes have come down tremendously. One of the recent examples on this front is the HP C-class blade series which has a chassis size of 10U.

Virtualisation on the blade chassis is also common now. The main advantage of this approach is that it is easy to have processing power on demand with the new generation of blade virtualisation tools.

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