They might have a lot to offer large enterprises, but blade servers in the Middle East remain restricted to a small part of the market, whose budgets have been curtailed by the recession. The question is, will they be the next big thing when the economy recovers?
They are the cutting-edge of technology, and if you would believe some vendors in the industry, blade servers can be a boon in almost every organisational data centre.
"Products and services connected with blades enable IT organisations and data centres to be time-smart, energy-thrifty, change-ready and cost-savvy," said Ayman Dwidar, ISS value, blades business unit manager at HP Middle East.
To add to the capabilities that they already possess, major server vendors have been working to improve blade technology over the last year and a half.
"Some of the changes in blade technology and capabilities over the last 18 months include the introduction of Intel Xeon 5500 processors (changing the specifics of blade servers), blade chassis supporting different blades (affecting blade density and support for different architecture) and support for more IO ports for demanding applications. There is increased flexibility, introduction of virtualisation technology into blades and the introduction of greener technologies consuming less power and less heat emission," said Chandan Mehta, product manager at Fujitsu Technology Solutions.
Despite their obvious advantages and the new capabilities that they boast, blades have not been adopted as widely in the Middle East as some vendors would have you believe and others have been hoping for some time. In fact, according to server revenue figures from both IDC and Gartner for the second quarter of this year, rack-style servers remained the top form factor across most of the world, including the Middle East and Africa.
"Adoption of new technologies, such as blades, takes time. Our customers need to see some real proof that this technology can make their business more competitive. It should also be mentioned that blades are not appropriate for all customers, and unless the customer deploys more than four to six servers, rack servers may be more cost-effective," said Patrick Swoboda, volume products manager, SEE at Sun Microsystems.
Dwidar adds, "Although the benefits of blades are enormous organisations have to take steps to get the best out of them. There has to be an initial investment; moreover, concentrating large computing power in a small footprint puts huge demands on the data centre itself from power and cooling perspectives.
Blades offer the best platform for consolidation which is, in itself, a great challenge that needs planning, preparation and time. Another important reason for lower adoption of blades is that the adoption of virtualisation technology in the region remains relatively low compared to Europe or the Americas. Blades are the optimum platform for virtualisation. All of the previous reasons might affect the adoption of blades in the region."
Additionally, since blades are largely a medium for consolidation, the large percentage of small and medium businesses (SMB) that dominate the Middle East industries find no benefit in them; restricting their usage to significantly larger enterprises.
As Mehta points out: "Most businesses in this region are still SMBs where the requirement does not go beyond two to three servers. For this, rack optimised servers are the best. Even with virtualisation gradually picking up, the trend is going to remain with a few powerful rack servers rather than blades for SMBs."
Only for a few
This market reality restricts blade adoption to a minority in the region. However, the few large organisations that are taking to blades are doing so for specific reasons linked to higher productivity.
"We see all major enterprises now investing in blade technology. It is not yet the biggest part of the business but it is steadily growing as more and more benefits emerge out of the technology. Companies deploying four or more servers realise that blades are a better choice than rack servers because they provide unified management, support for different types of processors and operating systems in the same chassis, and better energy efficiency because of power and cooling cost reductions," said Swoboda.
Typical usage patterns in the data centre for blades include everything from classic infrastructure to high-end database solutions, and opportunities continue to grow for blades in enterprises. According to vendors, this is largely due to the fact that there is absolutely no discrepancy between what organisations expect from their blade infrastructure and what these solutions can actually provide.
"Consolidation, virtualisation, manageability, availability and performance are some of the expectations of regional enterprises from blade technology. Currently, there are no discrepancies between expectations and what the technology can actually provide," said Mehta.
Even with the various benefits that blades bring to organisations, there are several challenges involved in implementing the solutions and using them to their maximum potential within an enterprise.
Mehta said: "Power, cooling requirements, training administrators and getting them to understand the concept of the cube or blade environment are some of the challenges facing enterprises investing in blades."
While some vendors believe that blade integration into an existing environment can be a hassle, others state that this need not be the case.
"When we think about blades we have to realise that it is not a new innovation that needs integration. I would say that blades are normal servers built in a way to provide massive savings in terms of the TCO of an organisational server environment. The most important part and the biggest challenge is managing and optimising the environment to get the best out of it, especially if the organisation is implementing virtualisation at the same time," explained HP's Dwidar.
The lack of a proper understanding of blade servers, their requirements and the various challenges that are part of deploying them leads many regional enterprises to make mistakes that can be easily avoided.
"Administrators fail to understand that the blade environment is not just a bunch of servers - it includes management, networking and storage components. Wherever possible, Fujitsu involves administrators right from the implementation stage, in order to avoid the above scenario. We also offer separate training," said Mehta
Dwidar agrees: "Blades are really a very important innovation that has huge benefits. The key message here is that blades are not only servers in a chassis, it is a whole infrastructure that includes connectivity, and the most important part is the management software which is the real deal. Management software enables the organisation to get the best out of the infrastructure and provides IT the agility it needs to provide a real competitive advantage to the business."
With blades, as with any other IT investment, challenges can be overcome and mistakes avoided, with just a little care and planning.
Sun's Swoboda suggests: "Choosing the right server platform is the key to a successful deployment. Understanding the requirements of the workload and the applications, and choosing the right solution that will best address these requirements, is the most critical part of planning the deployment."
"I would say proper planning starting from power and cooling requirements, and ending in how the organisation would use the management tools to optimise their infrastructure is a key to successful adoption of blades. I would recommend that the customer look at the full picture before jumping in to a buying decision," said Dwidar.
When a set of solutions is appreciated only by a comparatively small part of any market, there is every likelihood that an economic downturn will affect it more than other similar products. This is exactly what has happened to blade servers during the recent recession.
Despite this, and an overall reduction in the number of servers sold in the region, vendors remain confident that blades are the next big thing in the regional market.
"The recession not only affected blades, but the whole market. Slow demand affected almost the entire server market. I would say that the majority of organisations tried in this period to get the best out of what they already had, instead of buying new hardware as budgets tightened. However, I think that blades will be the first set of products to pick up after the recession. I would say that they will enjoy double digit growth in 2010," stated a confident Dwidar.
Swoboda agrees: "Of course, the recession reduced investment in IT and especially in the deployment of new technologies. But we still believe that we can outperform the market and we expect our share in blades to grow steadily faster than the market."
To answer the question of whether blade server adoption will peak as vendors hope, or whether the promising technology will remain restricted to just a few select organisations in the region, the industry will have to wait till the recession lifts entirely in the Middle East. Till then, it is a matter of holding one's breath and crossing one's fingers.
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