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Blade Servers Buyer's Guide, x86 Edition

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jun 3, 2010


More about blade servers

In this two-part series, ServerWatch will showcase and attempt to compare and contrast the various blade servers from the primary vendors. Here, in Part One, we over x86 blades; Part Two will take up the rest, including IBM POWER, HP Integrity and SPARC blades.

Looking to buy x86 blade servers? Here's what HP, IBM, Dell and Fujitsu have to offer.

Let's begin with a general overview of the blade phenomenon. A recent IDC survey found that blade growth comes largely from the data center and is the fuel behind rapid adoption of virtualization. More than two-thirds of blade servers reside within a data center, rather than a server room or closet, and blades are 38 percent virtualized, which is nearly twice the rate for the overall server market.

"Blades will continue to be an engine of growth for the server industry," said Jed Scaramella, an analyst at IDC. "IT organizations are realizing that blade technologies can help optimize their IT environments to keep pace with ever-changing business demands while simultaneously simplifying their IT infrastructure and improving asset utilization, IT flexibility and energy efficiency."

The last server market overview by IDC showed blade servers to be the one bright spot in a struggling server sector. The segment had a 30.9 percent increase in revenue and an 8.3 percent hike in unit shipments. In the x86 space (87 percent of the blade market), blades garnered an impressive 21.4 percent of all x86 server revenue.

Not surprisingly, there are many blade servers from which to choose. This guide won't cover everything, but it encompasses about 95 percent of the market, based on unit sales.

HP Rules the Blade Servers

IDC puts HP firmly in pole position in the great blade race, with a more than 50 percent share in revenue. According to Daniel Bowers, HP BladeSystem Product Marketing Manager, the company offers eight x86 blade servers:

  • HP ProLiant BL280c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL2x220c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL460c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant WS460c G6 Workstation Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL465c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL490c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL495c G6 Server Blade
  • HP ProLiant BL685c G6 Server Blade

They cover the gamut, spanning the latest AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon processors, along with a wide variety of I/O and network interconnect alternatives. They also come with Integrated Lights Out, multiple redundant features, embedded RAID controllers, and more. Both 2- and 4-processor models are available.

The BL280c, for example has one or two Xeon 5500/5600 processors. For a starting price of $1,509, you get one E5502 processor, 2GB memory, two integrated 1GbE network ports and an integrated SATA RAID controller, but no hard drive. As well as general data center duty, Bowers said this model is good for SMEs that want to consolidate all business apps, messaging and file sharing into a bladed environment at a low acquisition price.

A good midrange model using AMD Opteron is the BL495c, which seems to be aimed more at virtual environments. A starting configuration with one Opteron 2427 processor, 4GB of memory, integrated dual-port 10GbE network controller, integrated SATA controller and no hard drives is priced at $2,259.

At the high end, HP also offers both Xeon and Opteron models. The BL685c comes with two Opteron 8387 processors, 8GB of memory, two integrated dual-port 10GbE network controllers, an integrated SAS RAID controller with 512MB of cache, and no hard drives for $9,289. Bowers recommends this machine for virtualization, database, transaction processing and other scale-up workloads requiring lots of compute power.

The BL2x220c, on the other hand, has a starting price of $9,679 and is replete with two server nodes, each with two Xeon E5530 processors, 24GB of memory, two integrated 1GbE network ports, integrated SATA RAID controller and no hard drive. Bowers sees this as ideal for Top500 supercomputer environments in the oil and gas, life sciences, and animation rendering areas.

"Carefully choose your architecture before selecting a server blade," said Bowers. "Each vendor has a different architecture, which means that server blades from one vendor are not compatible with the blade enclosures from a different vendor."

He also advises users to look for blade servers that use the same components and management tools already in use on rack and tower servers. This will eliminate the need to create new processes, stock unique spares or learn new management tools. Further, pay close attention to power type, density and network capacity in the facility. Although blade servers are generally more power efficient that traditional rack servers, they can introduce higher server densities into the data center. Some users, for example, eagerly purchase blades only to find they lack the power to run them all. The HP BladeSystem Power Sizer is one tool that can help eliminate such errors.

Now for the big question: Why buy HP blade servers? Bowers sites the company's market leading position in blades for 12 consecutive quarters (HP has shipped nearly 2 million blades to date), the fact that HP BladeSystem is the most used platform on the Top500 Supercomputer list and density. The BL2x220c G6, he said, achieves the highest density of computing for any blade architecture, with up to 32 servers in 10U of space. Further, these G6 server blades include embedded 10Gb network controllers. No other blade vendor embeds 10Gb controllers.

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