Less Is More
Joining the major server vendors are an array of niche blade manufacturers addressing different aspects of the market, including Egenera, Penguin Computing, and Verari.
Egenera has been selling blades since 2001, but it targets strictly high-end applications. It uses both Xeon and Operton processors in its blades and supports Linux, Windows, and Solaris so users can run RISC/Unix applications.
“Most blades on the market are simply traditional servers packaged in a smaller, more convenient form factor,” says Egenera vice president Susan Davis. “They may have some advantages in terms of floor space and cable reduction, but they do little to reduce data center complexity and cost. Egenera’s systems were designed to address the larger issues in the data center — complexity, availability, the need for agility, and total cost of ownership.”
This year, the company released the third generation of its BladeFrame technology, BladeFrame EX, which more than doubles previous I/O performance and provides a 10 Gb fabric. The BladeFrame product line combines diskless and stateless processing blades (they contain only processors and memory and therefore have no operating system or physical components that make them fixed resources) with a high-speed fabric and software that virtualizes compute, storage, and networking resources.
“This virtualization of data center resources means that servers are no longer tied to specific operating systems or applications and can be easily shared and automatically repurposed based on business priorities and service-level agreements,” says Davis. “By turning servers from fixed resources into dynamic assets, enterprises can dramatically reduce the number they need, use a single server as backup for many servers, and reduce data center complexity by up to 80 percent.”
The COTS Approach
Last June, Verari Systems introduced a new line of products called BladeRack 2. These come prewired and are designed to take 480V 3Phase power directly from the utility, rather than requiring separate equipment to transform the power first. The racks use Verari’s patented Vertical Cooling Technology, which eliminates rack hot spots and improves HVAC efficiency by as much as 30 percent. Since the blades vent through the top of the rack, they don’t require the data center to use a “hot aisle, cold aisle” layout, thus enabling more servers to fit in the same footprint.
“Today’s data centers are critically limited by power and cooling capacities, design budgets, and the burden of implementing new architectures while running the existing platforms,” says Mike LaPan, Verari’s Marketing Operations Manager. “The best way to maximize overall compute power is to design the most efficient blade and rack architecture possible that maximizes data center power capacity and improves airflow and cooling efficiencies.”
Two of Verari’s more popular blades for the new rack are the VB1205 and the VB1507. The VB1205, designed for HPC and data center installations, has Intel Xeon (up to 2.8 GHz) processors with an 800 MHz front side bus and up to 8 GB of DDR RAM. High-speed connection options include InfiniBand and Myricom Myrinet. The VB1507 uses AMD’s Opteron processors and contains up to 16 GB of DDR memory. They come with dual-integrated gigabit Ethernet ports. The Verari Blades use Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) components, reducing cost and time to market.
“Many of the changes from our competition have involved proprietary technologies that not only extend a vendor’s time to market but also eliminate the value proposition associated with commercial off-the-shelf components and have compromised cross-compatibility to existing blades,” says LaPan. “The use of COTS components is yet another differentiating factor that sets us apart form our competition.”
San Francisco’s Penguin Computing makes BladeRunner, a 4U 12-blade Linux system that uses Xeon or Opteron processors.
“BladeRunner is the densest blade server solution on the market,” says Pauline Nist, senior vice president, Product Development and Management. “It also offers the lowest power consumption per processor, which is critical to effectively taking advantage of the density increases offered by blades.”
She says that the blades consume half the power and cooling of traditional 1U servers, resulting in a significant drop in total cost of ownership. The blades are used for Web hosting applications, enterprise applications, server consolidation, and extremely dense HPC clusters using Scyld ClusterWare, Penguin’s cluster operating system. This past year a 64-bit version of BladeRunner came out, and a new version is scheduled for 2007. This version will keep the same form factor.
“The blade servers themselves will be updated to take advantage of the new processor technologies being introduced by Intel and AMD in the second half of 2006,” sys Nist. “In 2007, additional upgrades to the chassis and switch infrastructure of BladeRunner are planned.”
Beyond the Blade
In evaluating blade servers, Wright recommends looking at the entire ecosystem rather than just the price and performance of the blades themselves. The networking and storage teams should also be brought in to ensure that the blades exactly match the standards the company has adopted in those areas and don’t require a slightly different model or spec. In addition, make sure the management tools meet the organization’s needs, are easy to use, and integrate with other systems in use. If the tool that the hardware vendor supplies doesn’t fit, find a third-party one that will.
“I tell clients not to just rely on the vendor’s demo but to pilot it for themselves,” she says. “It is a hardware decision, but the software is an integral part, and they should check that out as well.”