Hardware Today: Dueling Blades

Hardware Today: Dueling Blades


September 19, 2005

Blade servers are a particularly bright spot in a server market that continues to heat up.

According to IDC analyst Jean Bozman, the server blade market showed continued growth last quarter, with shipments increasing 67.1 percent for the year and factory revenue growing 87.9 percent compared to the same quarter in 2004. Overall, blade server market revenue accounted for $440 million in the second quarter.

Change has also come to blade design and form factor. The blades themselves have been refined to provide greater efficiency and flexibility.

"Blades continue to evolve into technology more suitable for mainstream data center usage," says John Enck, research vice president for Gartner. "The most recent investments have been improvements in power consumption, cooling, management, and storage/network interoperability."

Although there are dozens of blade vendors from which to choose, it is currently largely a two-company show: IBM and HP account for nearly 80 percent of the market, with sales figures that dwarf Dell's, which takes the No. 3 spot, and other vendors'.

"IBM maintained the No. 1 spot in the server blade market, with 40.9 percent market share, while HP maintained the No. 2 position with 38.6 percent share," says Bozman. "Dell's share of the blade market decreased to 6.5 percent in 2Q05."

Given IBM and HP's market prominence, let's take a look at what they are up to in their duel for data center dominance.

King of the Hill

IBM, with its BladeCenter family of products, has held the No. 1 position for the last eight quarters. Its Intel-based HS20 is currently the best-selling blade in the industry.

"Blades are emblematic of a shifting industry where high-volume servers and the 'scale out' computing model are having a profound effect on the worldwide server marketplace," says Tim Dougherty, director of IBM BladeCenter products. "Blades continue to be the world's fastest growing server market segment, and the BladeCenter family has seen the fastest sales growth in IBM server history."

He says the blades are used across the computing spectrum. At the top end, 69 of the supercomputers on the June 2005 Top 500 list used BladeCenter servers. But BladeCenter is equally at home in smaller organizations.

"Thirty percent of BladeCenter sales are in the SMB [small and midsize business] space, and this continues to be a strong growth business for IBM," says Dougherty. "Blades allow these smaller businesses to access computing strength to attack the most demanding computing tasks, such as digital animation, genomic calculations, and financial trading."

To further increase blade penetration in these markets, IBM recently announced its eServer BladeCenter Business Express — preloaded and preintegrated hardware and software packages designed to make it easier for SMBs to deploy blade architectures.

But IBM has been busy on several fronts with regard to bladed servers. In March, it released an embedded switch module that McDATA and Qlogic co-developed. In June, the company launched the LS20 blade using the AMD Opteron processor, introduced the first iSCSI blade capability, and announced that the POWER-Processor-based JS20 blade had achieved the Network Equipment Building System Level 3 (NEBS 3) and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) standards for carrier-grade applications. One month later, it announced three firms were building blades based on its BladeCenter Open Specification. CipherOptics of Raleigh, N.C. is building an IPSec encryption blade; Nominum of Redwood City, Calif. is creating DNS/CHCP blades; and SANRAD of San Mateo, Calif. is building a blade version of its Switch-V iSCSI SAN switch.

"IBM will continue to bring new blades to market as our industry partners update their technology," says Dougherty. "This technology is still in its infancy, and there is much innovation yet to be created."

>> HP, Building Alliances

The Big Rival

IBM may be king of the hill, but HP's continues its swift ascent. Like IBM, it is experiencing strong growth in data center deployment of blade servers.

"Blades are about infrastructure, not servers," says Rick Becker, vice president and general manager for HP's BladeSystem. "HP BladeSystem includes storage, virtualization, networking, and management."

As such, HP is targeting its blade development efforts toward many of the areas Gartner's Enck cites. In particular, it is focusing investment dollars in power and cooling. According to Becker, HP is taking a more holistic view of power efficiency, looking to find ways to optimize performance, density, and power usage for individual processors, as well as the data center as a whole.

Although HP manufactures quad-processor blades, Becker reports that dual-processor models remain best sellers. The ProLiant BL20p with two Intel Xeon processors, for example, far outsells any other HP blade. And this spring, HP became the first vendor to release blades with dual-core AMD Opteron processors — the 2-way ProLiant BL25p and BL35p, and the 4-way BL45p. The BL35p rapidly became HP's No. 2 blade in terms of unit sales.

Like IBM's Dougherty, Becker sees adoption across a wide spectrum of small and large enterprises. The company is especially seeing adoption across segments, such as financial, healthcare, manufacturing, internet gaming, and IT service providers. Becker sees the field moving toward greater integration, modularity, virtualization, and automation as a means of reducing the management load associated with manual support tasks.

"The marketplace requires more built-in intelligence, adaptive awareness, and menu-driven simplicity in order to free IT resources for revenue bearing projects," he says. "With management built into every component, blades can identify the locations of all resources connected to the intelligent infrastructure and facilitate advanced monitoring, control, and change."

Building Alliances

Despite strong growth, however, blades represent a mere 3.6 percent of overall server market revenue. Blades after all, are still a fairly new technology. Therefore, customers should pay close attention to system selection, as components are not swappable between competing systems.

"Blades remain highly proprietary — no vendor and no technology dominates the market right now," says Enck. "We remain far away from real or de facto standards."

Enterprises, therefore, should look for a system with enough breadth to meet all of their needs rather than having to support multiple architectures. To that end, IBM is working to assemble an alliance of vendors supporting its BladeCenter platform. The community, which launched in July, has Brocade, Cisco, Citrix Systems, IBM, Intel, NetApp, Nortel, Novell, and VMware as founding members.

"This community will focus on spurring development and innovation around blade technology and will enable BladeCenter ecosystem partners to test and interoperate their products on BladeCenter," says Dougherty.

HP, meanwhile, has a similar program called the HP BladeSystem Solution Builder, which includes some of the same vendors as IBM's group. Becker anticipates eventually standards will arrive to unite all vendors.

"HP sees 2006 as a year of many transitions to new industry standard technologies and innovations," he says. "As we have always done with our HP ProLiant portfolio, we will continue to innovate on standards and respond to the needs of our customers with new technologies that maximize their value."