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Blades: where to next?

The blade server round table was hosted by ARN in partnership with IBM and Ingram Micro

ARN invited a select group of resellers and integrators to an exclusive industry lunch for a discussion on the local blade server market. Representatives from IBM, Ingram Micro and Gartner were also in attendance. Blade technology has been around for a few years now and accounts for about 10 per cent of the global server market. But with server consolidation on the lips of most IT managers this year, the industry is gearing up for a significant spike in adoption.

The consensus around the table was that the growth of blade servers, at the expense of traditional rack-mounted models, is inevitable. The main drivers of this trend are improved manageability and consolidating the number of servers within an organisation.

VMware and Citrix were highlighted as applications that made blades a more attractive option but Gartner analyst, Phil Sargeant, suggested vendors had not done a great job to date of articulating this message. Some resellers said they were still happier using standalone servers for major virtualisation projects.

Despite the advantages of deploying a blade environment, it was agreed they were not always the answer. While Web-serving, edge of the network and high-performance computing are sweet spots, attendees agreed blades were not suitable for performance-oriented CRM or ERP databases.

As far as growing the market is concerned, it was agreed that further end-user education is still needed. Resellers also urged vendors to focus less on competing with each other in favour of building the overall market. Intense power usage within a confined space and the lack of competitive entry-level solutions are seen as potential stumbling blocks.

An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Brian Corrigan, ARN (BC): In your customer discussions, what is driving blade implementations?

Maree Lowe, ASI Solutions (ML): In our customer base, government is an area that is open but we haven't got the sales. The markets where we have sold blades, and for us it would be something like 4 per cent, are independent education and small business corporates.

John Deacon, Astron Technology (JD): Consolidation is the discussion we are all probably having with our customers. They are all looking for better value out of their data centres; they want to reduce human capital by improving manageability. Customers are seeing this as the right time to start looking at blades seriously. The [Intel] Woodcrest chip is getting about the right bang for the buck.

Gordon Cooper, Kaz Group (GC): We have two sorts of customers - those we actually sell product to and then others we provide hosted utility models for. In the hosted utility model we are looking for high density so the more we can fit into our floor space the better. From a power perspective, I would have to question whether you really save on air conditioning. That's an area we find a real challenge, and it's true in most data centres so we are not alone. Nobody has understood the ramifications of how much processing power you can get into one rack. How much power does a rack full of blades pull and can we sustain that as we encroach across our footprint? Virtualisation and capacity on demand are other areas we are looking at so not only can we ramp performance up, but we can ramp performance down as required.

Roy Pater, BCA IT (RP): We look at where people need centralisation of their applications. VMware and Citrix are enablers because blades on their own don't give you much. In fact, it gives you headaches around the draw of power and the cooling that's required. However, if you couple it with something like VMware you can reduce servers. Where people are running large databases they require centralisation of storage in the blade.

Greg Wade, Frontline Systems (GW): Most of our customers who are going through tech refresh would be interested in understanding the extras that blade technology could bring to them. If they've got data centres that are more than five years old we are advising them to look at the infrastructure because we believe it is not able to keep up with the power draw that is required. It is causing customers to think about a lot more of infrastructure rather than just CPU performance. If you build it they will use it. So if you build something that has the capability of going to X, they will populate at X and that means instantly they will draw more power.

Steven Boi, Dimension Data (SB): I talked to a number of engineering people in our team and power didn't rate at all as a constraint.

RP: It's really about power draw density. You are now putting a lot more in a smaller space and that's where the issues are.

Dean Janjic, IBM (DJ): New technologies are driving additional power draw. We have done quite a few comparisons that show traditional 1U and 2U servers with lots of adapters and Woodcrest technologies draw far more power than blades do.

RP: Sure, but now you've got this density that is all being pulled out of one area and that's when the brownouts happen in that particular rack. IBM and HP are fighting each other by increasing density and Intel is building higher density processors but there are a lot of issues there. Power is the big concern and that's why I say on its own [blade architecture], it's not attractive. If you couple it with VMware you've got a different argument because you genuinely reduce the number of servers and it starts to make sense. Has Gartner done any comparisons measuring the adoption of blades against the uptake of Citrix and VMware?

Phil Sargeant, Gartner (PS): We find there are a lot of organisations out there that look at blade or virtualisation. They don't actually link them together. The vendors have done a very poor job in articulating the benefits of coupling virtualisation to blades. At this point in time, there are many blade deployments that don't use VMware or [Microsoft] Virtual Server and yet there would be a lot of benefits to doing so. That's a challenge for the vendors. ML: I think we are missing the issue. I think we are sitting here as technology people but if I was a business customer I would want to know that the application I am running is going to work.

PS: That's an extremely good point and another area that hasn't been articulated very well. It's horses for courses and blades should be used for appropriate applications. What do people think are the sweet spots in terms of applications? We did a survey last year of about 1500 organisations in Asia-Pacific that asked questions about applications. Invariably it was Web-serving, edge of the network and high-performance computing.

SB: Our team feels uncomfortable deploying blades to run performance-oriented databases like Oracle or SQL but they are very happy to use them for AD [Active Directory], Web server or DNS [Domain Name Service]. They are also very strong on using blades in a DR [Disaster Recovery] environment where utilisation is not likely to be on a regular basis. The biggest concern is shared connectivity because that limitation could potentially cause some pain to the clients. In larger, more complex VMware environments, we are still more comfortable proposing standalone servers.

Mark Gluckman, Regal IT (MG): Blades have come a long way. At one stage we had a moratorium on selling them because of the complexities and huge issues around management. But now they definitely have a place. We are selling regularly in the Citrix environment and into smaller VMware infrastructures. We are tending to go to bigger boxes for bigger VMware deployments.

Ian Thomas, Tardis (IT): We are doing two server consolidations a month using VMware, which is where you get your economies of scale. Our biggest customer in terms of revenue for 2006 was a blade buyer. The biggest issue is scaling up. Four-way servers are going to open the market up even further.

GC: I think it's a comfort factor. Once people start to embrace a technology it is not black magic any more. We are whole-heartedly endorsing the utility model because it provides the level of density to provide for as many customers as we can feed through our pipes.

BC: Gordon touched on comfort levels. How easy is it now to pitch the blade message?

SB: We are finding it fairly easy. If there's one challenge the vendors have, it's challenging the perception of performance. People believe blade performance is inferior.

RP: Customers are quick to talk about blades but slow to commit.

SB: On the up side, people gravitate to the concept of carrying a hot spare so if one blade goes down you just pull it out and put another one in. They are looking at remote sites where they don't have all the staff and blade technology just works.

BC: Ingram Micro recently moved to a blade environment. Stuart, can you tell us a little about that? Stuart Ellis, Ingram Micro (SE): Our implementation was around server containment, consolidation of our environment and ease of management but only for certain applications within our business. Core applications that run sales, distribution, warehousing and so on will stay on Unix platforms by and large and run on different types of CPU.

BC: Servicing such a diverse reseller base, what are your perceptions around the adoption of blade technology?

SE: Blades have been around for a number of years now but we have seen slow take-up from our perspective. We are certainly not running in alignment with the vendor percentages. There is an education and enablement job required. The technology has become a lot more complex, we have lots of different CPU, OS and storage options. Connectivity has been an issue historically but now we are seeing improvements in that. We find that users who come to our labs with partners have no real idea or understanding around blades. After a couple of hours working through the benefits with our technical staff they have a change of heart. We are starting to see pick up in the last three quarters and it is starting to rock 'n' roll for us.

SB: IBM has significantly reduced the cost of getting chassis to customers. We found one of the significant factors a year ago was that the chassis were so expensive that customers were struggling. Now it has come down by 50-60 per cent and there could be correlation between that and greater uptake.

DJ: The other thing we have done is build up an ecosystem of 700 partners to build gear towards our equipment. Recognising customers have pretty heterogeneous environments, what you're looking for is tested solutions that work.

BC: As a reseller, how significant is the investment to become efficient in selling blades?

MG: I don't think it's a huge investment. The technology is getting better and better so everything will end up on blades because they are smaller, more nimble and easier to manage. It is the way to go.

GC: We are consolidating everybody's remote environment back to the central data centre and using WAN optimisation so you don't have to deploy Intel-based servers, operating systems and applications at the remote sites. It is all managed centrally to get the best economies out of the WAN as well. That's one area where we are using blade technology as part of the whole application suite to go out and sell this concept to the customer.

BC: What could vendors and distributors be doing to make life easier for resellers when it comes to growing the blade market?

JD: It's an education exercise both internally and externally for vendors. People representing to end users and the channel are not necessarily equipped with the right knowledge. They are not thinking about how the applications are going to apply and they are not educating the channel, which has a thousand other things to promote. Getting a succinct message in place is important. They also need to educate distributors because they don't face clients. You see [vendor] funded heads arriving in distribution but they don't necessarily have much client-facing experience.

RP: They talk speeds and feeds. The big thing I find is that it is all about us and them [from a vendor perspective]. It is all about 'our competitor' but who cares? Anybody selling blades needs to realise that we must make the market accept the technology. That means coming together. Let's build the boxing ring before we start boxing.

SB: I'm going to be really provocative. As a reseller or integrator, do I really care whether I sell a blade server or standalone solution? In storage there are very clear technical reasons between choosing one flavour or another but is that the case with servers? I don't see it.

JD: Our clients can be fairly insular. They know their environment better than we do but they don't necessarily know what happens in the broader market so they are looking for insights from us. Bringing that knowledge is incredibly important and that is where we get to the trusted advisor role, particularly for smaller business partners.

IT: The biggest problem is that most sales staff cannot articulate where a customer's pain is and what they are doing currently. Nobody wants to spend a couple of hours listening.

SB: Business is too good - let's face it. The market is robust so we want to move onto the next deal. It might have been different three or four year ago when the market was tougher.

ML: The battle is to be able to ask questions about what infrastructure a customer is using and what their plans are. Never ask what their pain points are because they are not going to tell you. I would not take the distributor in because they tend to talk product and specs.

BC: You say you wouldn't take the distributor in to see the client but what about taking the client to see the distributor?

ML: We certainly will if there's a test lab.

MG: Distributors come in when you want to talk roadmaps and establish whether the investment going to be sound for the next five years.

SE: Our diversification strategy is providing a more holistic view and support structure around our product portfolio. Our solutions architects are focused on business case resolves.

BC: How important are things like test labs and configuration services in levelling the playing field between smaller resellers and larger competitors?

MG: Customers trust us. We provide the solution, we tell them it's going to work and we have the vendor's support.

ML: Access to configurators is really important.

SB: We find that labs are rarely a dealer maker or breaker. Customers see us as a trusted advisor who will deliver what we say we will deliver. We have only done two proof of concepts that I am aware of in the past 12 months.

DJ: With any new technology it takes a while to filter out to people. They need to see it and run it to understand any nuances. The only way you can do that is to have a place for people to come and take a look at the equipment. It shows a customer how their environment could run. From that perspective, test labs are important.

PS: How often do you put blades on an organisation's floor for them to experiment with them? We found with some people that expressed concerns to us about blades that it was very much perception more than anything el se. Testing bore fruit.

RP: We have certainly done that in the past.

DJ: Overall, we have definitely seen a change in blade customer type during the past four quarters. Initially it was a few customers in select segments of the market but now it is schools, councils, government and all kinds of business. It's often about consolidation but schools have fewer servers and it comes down to ease of management in that environment.

ML: If you are selling to me as a customer I want to know whether it will save me money, put me ahead of the competition and last for five years. It's that simple.

DJ: The more ticks you can put in the boxes, the more likely you are to have success with that customer.


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