Battle of the blades

Blade servers are winning the hype war, but losing when it comes to actual deployments. ACN looks at some of the critical blade issues, and at what regional enterprises really want in a server.
Battle of the blades
By Eliot Beer
Sun 09 Sep 2007 12:18 PM

To believe the hype, any IT manager without blade servers in their datacentre might be forgiven for thinking that they were way behind the times.

A number of companies - with HP and IBM in the forefront - are pushing blades as the answer to a host of problems - space, management, efficiency, reliability. Buy blades, the marketing subtly suggests, and all your server problems will be solved.

All of a sudden, over from an 80-20 split, in favour of rack-mount queries, we’re now seeing the same split in favour of blades.

For some, the hype has certainly worked. According to vendors, more and more potential customers are asking for proposals built around blades at the start of the sales process. Opinions differ as to how many start off with blades, but there is no doubt the number is rising steadily in the Middle East.

Basil Ayass, systems sales specialist for MENA at Sun Microsystems, has seen a dramatic rise in interest around blade servers: "We see that customers are leaning more towards the blade market now - most of the requests that we get are specifically around blades. And blades are overhyped at the moment - all of a sudden, over one year in the Middle East, from an 80-20 split, in favour of rack-mounts, we're now seeing the same split in favour of blades, in terms of queries."

The reality is somewhat different. Blade sales are growing - faster than rack-mount sales, and certainly faster than other form factors, which are now in decline. But the blade form factor - as most market-aware professionals will know - is still a niche segment.

According to IDC figures released last month, EMEA server sales totalled US$4.1 billion in the second quarter of 2007 - of this blade sales made up $300 million: just over 7% of the total market. IDC notes that blade sales are growing at around 12% - the market overall is growing at only 8%. With blade sales starting at such a low percentage of the overall market, this suggests that the overall proportion of blade servers being shipped is not going to change radically for some more time.

This confirms the experience of vendors, which see many customer queries become diverted from blades over the course of the sales cycle. Dell - which has recently taken a very public step back from blades as a catch-all solution - certainly sees significant numbers of customers move from blades to many other server technologies.

"You would be amazed - we have customers which come in through partners, saying ‘we want blades'. Often it's a configuration we don't have, or don't supply or support. So we start to question things, first with the partner - have they sat down with the customer and tried to figure out what they're actually trying to achieve?" explains Jul Johanson, solution manager at Dell Middle East.

"In most cases, we will ask for a meeting with the customer, because we will have a different view. We will almost always get a meeting - and from time to time we will turn the game, and move it away from blades," he adds.

The blade/rack-mount debate comes at a critical time for regional enterprises - as more regional organisations embark on expensive datacentre projects, the choice of servers is one of the most critical decisions business and IT managers will need to make.

Blades have a very clear and well-argued case - with space and I/O and power all becoming increasingly tight, blade servers offer a much denser and more resource-efficient system than rack-mounts. Effectively smaller servers rotated 90 degrees and with a shared and standard I/O and power infrastructure, blades promise to maximise the computer capacity of any particular volume of space.
"Why do customers ask for blades? It's easy to manage, it's easy to scale, and it's all consolidated in one space," summarised Sun's Ayyas.

Unfortunately for the pro-blade lobby, the case against the format is equally cogent. Blades are, by their nature, proprietary - once an enterprise chooses a vendor, it is stuck with that choice until it fills the effective capacity of the blade racks it has purchased.

Effective capacity is another problem area, and shows blades as the victims of their own success. Because blade servers manage to pack in much more computing capacity per square metre, this also means power consumption and cooling requirements are much higher. After a certain point, power grids cannot pump out enough electricity to one area - and air conditioners cannot generate enough cooling capacity for a given volume of space. Thus - in theory, at least - enterprises may have to leave blade racks half empty, because of these constraints.

"There are physical limitations to blades, physical limitations to the number of cards you can put into the servers. I'm sure the technology will move on, but we would ask customers why they are so set on blades - is it issues of space, is the datacentre too small. There are also questions around heat, cooling and power. The discussion has changed over time - two years ago we probably wouldn't have talked about power and cooling," says Johanson.

He also sees the server discussion moving on to more business-focused matters, and away from technology issues: "We encourage people not to look at the technology, but see what they can get out of the various options available from the technology. This is where we start to talk about if people really want blades - a lot of customers start off saying ‘I want blade servers', and we would probably ask them what they're basing this on. We try to have a different discussion with our customers than we used to have - in the past it was specs and speeds and CPUs, and this was ten-times faster, and so on."

Business necessity has moved the server debate on from pure technology, to issues that directly affect organisations - such as space, power, cooling, management. But some of these issues are still of limited interest to Middle Eastern organisations, according to most industry profiessionals.

"I think enterprises recognise power as an issue, but with power available on demand, it becomes less critical," comments Chandan Mehta, product manager for enterprise products at Fujitsu-Siemens Computers. Enterprises would take it much more seriously if they were in New York, where you have to negotiate very hard with the utility company to give you extra power every six months.

"In this part of the world, people do recognise the issue, because they do have to request additional power from the utility provider as and when they scale up - but it's an issue which is currently easily solved, and hence is not a burning concern," Mehta adds.

And when it comes to advanced server configuration - such as virtualisation - the region's enterprises seem to work on several levels. Dell's Johanson comments that in his experience, many organisations in the Middle East do not choose to look at virtualisation as an option - until circumstances, such as a lack of space, force their hands.

Mehta confirms this hypothesis. "I don't think customers ask for virtualisation right from the start. But a lot of enterprises with legacy infrastructure which are fine-tuning their architecture are starting to consider virtualisation seriously - it's the same hype that is driving blade servers," he concludes.

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