Reducing data centre maintenance costs is music to the ears of any IT administrator trying to manage a gaggle of servers and complex networking equipment. The space-saving form factor of blade server technology is helping them to do that but it does bring its own set of challenges.
According to analysts, blade servers continue to register excellent growth in the Asia-Pacific market. As the technology moves from niche to mainstream, blades are being used to maximise server efficiencies.
Blade servers are self-contained devices designed for high density. Unlike a standard rack-mounted server, many blade models have some components removed for space, power and other considerations while still having all the functional components necessary to be considered a computer.
Making up the blade system, an enclosure provides services such as power, cooling, networking and a host of interconnects and management capabilities, although it differs with each vendor.
Locally, the top three blade server vendors in Q1 2006 were HP, IBM and Dell, according to Gartner principal server analyst, Annie Chung. Blade servers represented about 7 per cent of all servers sold worldwide but the analyst form is predicting they will account for 20 per cent by 2010. "Blades will be well established but they will not be the predominant choice," Chung said.
Rival analysts at IDC, meanwhile, predict almost one in three servers purchased in Australia will be blades by 2010. To date, highest adoption rates have been seen in government, education, telecommunications and media. Finance and distribution have also come to the party.
"Blades are expected to grow unit share, though at a much slower rate than in 2005," IDC servers and workstation analyst, Christopher Ward,said. "Adoption is currently slowed by the existing replacement habits of the Australian install base plus education and knowledge of how to leverage the new technologies, particularly in the channel community."
Today, main applications for blade servers generally fall into two categories: front-end and mid-tier, according to Gartner's Chung.
"Front-end applications depend more on fast throughput than raw processing power, so they may be installed on blade servers with just one or two processors," she said.
Front-end applications can be distributed across multiple servers with workload balancing software. Front-end applications include: Web serving; remote caching; proxy server; firewall; encryption engines; portal services; directory servers; domain name system servers; and thin client servers. Mid-tier applications, meanwhile, usually require a two- or four-way blade server.
"These larger blades can support transaction processing applications or small database applications," Chung said. "These may require more internal disks on the blade or rely on SAN storage.
"We have not yet seen blade servers widely installed in production environments for complex applications such as database serving, data warehousing, enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management," Chung said.
So now we know where they are, what are the benefits? Blade servers provide a space-efficient format for server processing capacity, compared to traditional server hardware.
Blades are solving fundamental problems in the data centre, such as power and cooling issues, according to Intel regional solutions manager, customer solutions group, Brett Hannath.
Power usage and high heat concerns have been a stumbling block for some potential buyers. But the addition of a processor that reduces the power it takes to juice up a blade, dubbed Sosoman, removes those concerns, he claimed. Space saving and ease of management are top benefits.
"Blades offer high-density computing," Hannath said. "Users can fit twice the computing power into half the space."
The new architecture combines networking and storage switching fabrics, advancement management and automation tools. With this kind of integration, he predicted the technology would take off in the mid market.
A number of vendors are dishing out newer versions of blade systems and pitching the benefits of an all-in-one concept. HP recently released its BladeSystem c-Class system, which is being billed as a data centre in a box that combines networking, server and storage functionality, the vendor's enterprise product and services marketing manager, Angus Jones, said.
The system aimed to cut operational and capital expenditure costs by almost half in a typical data centre implementation.
"There's a reduction in people and data centre maintenance costs as well as third-party and hardware costs," he said.