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Dell to Bolster Blade Market

Dell is looking to get a little leaner in the blade server market.

Company officials said this week that Dell is developing new blades, thin servers that slide into a chassis that conserve space, with greater functionality and a denser form factor than current machines on the market.

Slated for a fourth-quarter release, the ultra-thin machines will house one and a half blades in the same space that a 1U (1.75 inch) server takes up, according to Paul Gottsegen, vice president of worldwide enterprise marketing in Dell's Product Group.

In a briefing on Dell's blade server strategy Thursday, Gottsegen told internetnews.com machines will use the forthcoming Intel Nocona/Lindenhurst processor and chipset combination. Launched by Intel earlier this week, Nocona is the first Xeon to support Intel's EM64T 64-bit extensions.

The new blades will also feature DDR2 memory technology, PCI-Express interconnect and freshly minted server-management capabilities. Gottsegen said demand for the new machines was sparked by customers who are requesting the blades with great density and the same feature functionality of 1U servers.

Summit Strategies analyst John Madden said the idea of denser servers stems from the fact that customers are looking for hardware that is easier to manage but without sacrificing performance, availability and reliability.

"The idea of denser servers with 1U-like functionality can, for some customers, result in a consolidated infrastructure that still serves business needs," Madden told internetnews.com. "And that's the real key to Dell's success or any vendor's success in this area -- changes in hardware density and form factors are great, but only if they meet their IT and business needs at the same time."

This poses a challenge for blade vendors. The super-thin servers are already quite small, conserving not only a great amount of space in data centers, but freeing IT managers from messy cables associated with traditional servers. They are considered ideal for cluster or grid computing scenarios.

There are trade-offs though, including single notebook IDE drives, or a single processor.

But market leaders IBM , Sun Microsystems , HP and smaller vendors are all working to bolster their blade systems to make them more like servers in terms of functionality and processing power.

For example, HP last month doubled the density of its blades, and juiced the processing power for the BL30p. But the functionality in this ProLiant line remains the same. Meanwhile, IBM is hard at work expanding its BladeCenter line.

Adding new functionality has been a distinct challenge in the market. Assuming Dell succeeds, the company is then going to play to its strengths, undercutting the competition's prices to lure cost-conscious customers. Dell has done this with PCs, printers and other products.

Gottsegen said that while current blades actually come at a premium -- a 30 to 40 percent uptick in the cost versus the same number of 1U servers -- Dell will "change the paradigm for what customers can expect."

"Our goal here is that when you're halfway through filling the chassis with blades, you reach your cost-neutral point. When the chassis is completely full with blades, there is actually a 25 percent cost advantage with the blades."

Although blades garner only about 3 percent of the units shipped of the current total server market, they are expected to gain momentum and become a multi-billion-dollar business over the next five years or so.