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Issue of August 2006 

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A promise half-fulfilled

Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow

- David Everett (1769-1813)

Blade servers seem to have everything right. They’re modular. You can squeeze more of them onto a standard rack-mountable blade enclosure than you could fit conventional rack-mount servers into in the same space. Plus they offer loads of flexibility in terms of deployment and management. So why isn’t everybody buying blades?

There’s more than one reason why blades are still more of a curiosity than the de facto form factor for servers in a data centre. First off, while blades are modular and all that jazz, the cost of buying an enclosure makes buying one or two blades a no-no. Which is unfortunate as that’s where a small organisation would like to start before it builds out its infrastructure. The solution for that would have to be the vendor subsidising the cost of the enclosure and making its money on sales of additional blades. Even if you’re buying a fully populated enclosure, blades cost a bit more than traditional rack-mounts though that gap is closing.

Beyond that, if we are going to talk about standards, why can’t you just plug in a blade from one vendor into an enclosure made by a second vendor. That would be a compelling reason to choose blades over rack-mounts which can be fitted into the same rack regardless of their manufacturer. Without this capability you’re locked into a relationship with a vendor for expanding your blade deployment giving you little flexibility if your vendor decides to go slow or forego making, say, Opteron-based blades or 2-way blades or even RISC blades.

Blades are a promising architecture which is why server and networking vendors have both started building them. If true interoperability came about you would end up in a world where every switch could be a server and vice versa. Then there are storage blades and unclassifiable ones like IBM’s Cell processor-based model that has nine dual cores and is aimed at medical imaging and life sciences applications.

While there’s always going to be a need for 32-or 64-way SMP monsters to run mission-critical applications, for the rest—blades will do very nicely once the pricing and vendor interoperability issues are sorted out.

Prashant L Rao
Head of Editorial Operations

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