Serving up a change

Serving up a change

The humble blade server has been all but forgotten as technology progresses but JENNIFER MEARS writes that it has a new and important role.

Blade servers, those compact slices of computing power that fit into racks like books in a bookshelf, have largely been relegated to running front-end jobs in the data centre — asks such as Web serving, caching and firewalls. But, increasingly, business customers are looking to blades for data centre consolidation, hoping to run databases and other critical applications on the systems.

Vendors are responding to the demand by adding features and power to blade servers to make them more capable of supporting transaction-oriented applications and higher-performing workloads. They’re also working to make it easier for end users to integrate the blades into data centre architectures.

For instance, IBM recently announced that it was embedding Fibre Channel switches from Brocade Communications into its BladeCenter systems. That news followed an announcement by IBM and Cisco detailing an expanded relationship which also included integrating Cisco’s Intelligent Gigabit Ethernet Switch Module into BladeCenter.

Most of the systems vendors provide SAN and Ethernet connectivity for some of their blade servers, but most require pass-through boards or other approaches to connect into the network infrastructure.

Consequently, users have to run cables from each blade to an external Fibre Channel or Ethernet switch. For example, HP was the first to offer Fibre Channel SAN connectivity for its blades, but does so using a mezzanine board or host bus adapter.

IBM is integrating the actual switch into BladeCenter, thus reducing cabling requirements and letting users seamlessly connect their blades into Brocade- and Cisco-based networks. The switches fit into the back of the BladeCenter chassis and offer their suite of management capabilities. Analysts claim IBM is the first to focus on integrating third-party switches into its blade offerings, though they note HP and IBM have integrated switches based on Nortel Networks technology into their blade chassis.

“Without these integrated modules you’d have to take the vendor’s own [switch], which then wouldn’t integrate nearly as well with your overall infrastructure and, therefore, the blades would tend to be an island off to the side,” analyst at Illuminata, Gordon Haff, said. “Or you would have to use the Brocade or the Cisco switches as external components. And then you lose some of the integrated nature of the blade.

“By integrating the switches, it lets you stay within the integrated blade environment while at the same time staying within your existing switch infrastructure.”

That’s a capability that users say will let them do more with the blade systems.

Director of technology and systems at Marist College in New York, Harry Williams, has used IBM blade servers for about a year to run distance-learning applications.

He said the integrated Cisco switch would reduce management headaches and let him expand his use of the blades.

“[The Cisco switch module] takes up less room in our rack, and it more tightly integrates with all of our other network management tools,” he said.

“And there’s less cabling, fewer things to break and fewer things to buy. We’re going to look at how this can drive new projects. We’re starting to consider more grid projects, and we’re looking at BladeCenter as being a key component of that.”

With IBM and Cisco integrating their products, his staff no longer had to focus on making sure the technologies work well together, Williams said. “And I don’t get the finger-pointing between vendors,” he said. “They’re telling me these things are going to work together before they even arrive at my shop.” Across the board, systems vendors said they would continue to look at ways to better integrate blades into storage and network architectures.

Vice-president of marketing at RLX Technologies, Tejas Vakil, said that while his firm’s management software, called Control Tower, was the key to integrating the blades into the overall data center infrastructure, he didn’t rule out integrating third-party switches into the blade chassis as IBM had done.

HP also said that it plans blade fabric switching announcements.

But analysts claim blades still face some hurdles when it comes to widespread adoption. For one thing, the blades are still about the same price as comparable 1U servers and must be bought with a blade chassis. Users say that buying multiple blades is where real savings come in.

Vendors must continue to work to better integrate the blades into the data centre, analysts said.

“[Symmetric multi-processing] blades are a big strength,” lead analyst for industry-standard computing platforms at D.H. Brown, Sarang Ghatpande, said.

“So are multi-platform, multi-operating system blade offerings. Customers don’t want to just consolidate one architecture or operating system onto blades, they are looking at consolidating multiple operating systems into the blade form factor.

“There is a lot of interest in RISC/UNIX, [Intel Itanium) and Opteron-based blade products [running together] in a single chassis, and vendors addressing this would have a much stronger value proposition than someone selling only a single type of blade product within a chassis.” Another issue is the lack of standardisation among blades and the inability to combine blades from different vendors.

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