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Firms Cut Their Teeth on Blade Servers

In the high risk world of high-tech, businesses and the engineers who develop new infrastructure technologies for them are forever faced with the challenges of making smaller products that conserve energy and space, while trimming costs. In enterprise computing, that is where blade servers come into play. As with many technology issues, the specter of debate hovers over all.

A blade server is an entire server that fits on a single card, or blade, which means that network interfaces, the CPU, the memory, and the hard disk are installed on the card. The blades are plugged into a single chassis, where an IT manager can generally fit 16 server blades into the space previously occupied by a single server.

As opposed to commonplace mainframes and other refrigerator-sized server systems, but very much in line with what major high-tech firms are leaning toward, blades use low power processors to reduce power consumption and heat, both of which save money and wear and tear on the system. Blades also cut out the messy Ethernet cable aspect of the serving chore. The smaller form factor is a plus, but density, failover (if one server goes out, can another one kick in seamlessly) and price performance are, for the most part, what blades strive to improve upon.

Blade servers are popular among ISPs and ASPs, and for applications such as e-mail, Web hosting and domain name serving. But as the technology improves, meaning as hardware and software for them evolves, you'll probably see a lot more in finance fields for banks, or in life sciences fields, where genome studies require large amounts of clustering. With a market potential of billions of dollars (IDC estimates $3.7 billion by 2006), one thing blade servers are not, is hooey.

In the beginning...
Now, while you might have seen a number of announcements from Compaq , HP , IBM , Dell , and Sun Microsystems about their new blade server systems, the tale of the market niche goes back a few years, before the bottom fell out of the dot-com market and high-tech firms dependent on hardware and software infrastructure to help them run and expand their businesses started cutting back on expenses and becoming leaner.

In 1999 and 2000, a slew of startups launched, promising that the bold new form factor would prove to be more than just a novelty. Now, months away from 2003, you'd be hard pressed to find any of these beyond Marlborough, Mass.'s Egenera and Houston's RLX Technologies, both of which seem to be succeeding. Egenera's high-end approach to blading (Credit Suisse First Boston replaced 20 traditional RISC-based servers with Egenera's BladeFrame, which it uses to process more than 60 million financial transactions a day) has been praised by analysts, while RLX has found additional funding in a time when funding for IT infrastructure is almost nil.

Analysts such as Summit Strategies' John Madden and IDC's John Humphreys, said a lot of the startups both native and abroad went under because of bad business models, or because the "partnership ecosystem" was not ripe.

But something in the way RLX and Egenera moved caught the attention of the major players, including Compaq, HP, IBM, Dell and Sun. They have all announced intentions to get into the market. And why not? Research firm Gartner Dataquest said last February that worldwide blade server shipments could grow from 84,810 units in 2002 to more than 1 million by 2006.

RLX and Egenera, who it should be noted approach blades differently, (Egenera shoots for high-end servers and envisions them powering the largest of enterprises; RLX goes for datacenters at the lower end) are ramping up product cycles and are in their fourth generations of blades, while the titans are in first or second phases.

Blade server players
Among the big boys, HP tapped the keg at the server blade party in December 2001, when it unveiled its new blade server product series and began taking orders for the server once code-named "Powerbar." IDC analyst John Humphreys said at the time that the "blades market is poised for rapid growth and HP's approach to blades is leading the way for the expansion of that market." He also noted that HP had cultivated well-developed ecosystems of partners.

Compaq followed suit in January 2002. Launched in New York City, the ProLiant BL e-Class server blade, code-named QuickBlade, promised businesses that they may pack up to 280 servers into a standard 42U rack with hot-swappable fans and power sources. Up to 20 blades can fit in a 3U rack, and those 20 blades only require 7 cables as opposed to the 80 now required. Later, it launched the BL p-class, with more power. While the e-Class served static Web pages, the p-Class promises to enable dynamic Web hosting, terminal server farm and streaming media.

Now, you would do well to ask whether or not HP and Compaq's server blade lines overlap, as Compaq remains a separate brand under the HP umbrella. Could one line cannibalize the other? A fair question, and one that ultimately remains to be seen. Just note that HP has designs to sell to telco and network service provider customers; Compaq aims to power front-end to high-performance SMP servers for multi-tiered environments. HP recently refreshed its server blade family with the ProLiant BL p-Class system, its first dual-processor blade server to hit the market. This is big news it itself, as server blades are expected to scale out beyond traditional 1 processor to 2 and 4-way systems (or more) for added power.

After those two, you can count Dell and IBM as the next entrants in April 2002. Dell announced its new PowerEdge 1655MC, which holds up to six servers with two Intel Pentium III processors in one rack, while IBM introduced its eServer BladeCenter, systems powered by Intel Corp.'s DP and Itanium chips in addition to IBM's own POWER server semiconductors.

Sun Microsystems is the remaining holdout, with products planned to go live in the next few months. Sun plans to release two types of blades later this year, including one that uses Intel chips and the Linux operating system, and one that employs its own UltraSparc chips and Solaris operating system.

Ashley Eikenberry, group product marketing manager for Blade Computing at Sun, told internetnews.com that Sun sees the next wave of blades to be "media blades" to facilitate business transactions.