Blade vendors sharpen focus on management

As companies in growing numbers consider blade servers to handle critical business workloads, they are looking beyond the power and space savings they can get and are demanding more when it comes to the tools to manage these compact systems.

From the beginning, these stripped-down servers -- typically consisting of a single board, memory and CPU -- have been touted for the ease with which systems can be deployed, provisioned and managed.

But management tools have been limited in large part because blades have been deployed as separate entities that could not hook directly into -- or be managed along with -- existing data center infrastructures. Most vendors offered pass-through boards or other approaches to connect into legacy network infrastructure.

That is beginning to change with vendors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM integrating storage and network switches into their blade chassis. More integrated hardware combined with a move to put more critical workloads onto the blades and a growing interest in modular, scale-out computing -- in which smaller servers act as a single compute resource -- is resulting in a demand for increasingly sophisticated management capabilities, analysts say.

In a 2004 IDC report that discussed the movement of blades into the mainstream, analysts said that system management software will play an important role in moving more blades into enterprise data centers.

"Rapid advancement in system management software, clustering technology, and the continued disaggregation of servers into smaller form factors and components are expected to fuel the growth of server blades and modular systems," the analysts wrote.

On the rise

Blade adoption already is on the rise: Shipments more than doubled between 2003 and 2004, growing from nearly 185,000 units in 2003 to more than 450,000 last year. IDC expects about 1.4 million blade servers will ship in 2006, accounting for about 40 percent of the overall server market.

Raymond Decrescente, CTO for the Capital Region Orthopedic Group, turned to HP blades in 2003 when the practice transitioned from a paper-based medical records system to an electronic one. He says the fact that blades are designed to be deployed in clusters and that faulty systems can be swapped out without disrupting workloads enabled him to create a powerful, highly available environment.

"Easier management is more time efficient and time is money," Decrescente says. "Blades and central storage allow for a space saving solution that better lends itself to high availability architectures. Blades produce less heat, use less energy, are hot swappable. . . . If you are deploying several servers or maybe installing a ground-up data center, you need to look at blade technology."

Decrescente plans to bring in more blades and says he's happy with the management tools he has, but is always looking for improvement. He would like to see faster responding, integrated lights-out capabilities, which let users virtually monitor and manage the blades from a single point regardless of the server's state.

Analysts say users can expect to see enhancements to that kind of basic management feature, but that vendors also will start giving blades more advanced management capabilities. Look for areas such as virtualization and power management, and software that makes it easier to manage blades in conjunction with network, storage, applications and other server hardware.

An integrated story

"Management has to become integrated, and there will be more of that happening," says Audrey Rasmussen, a vice president at Enterprise Management Associates and author of Network World's "Network/Systems Management" newsletter. "It's about taking a look at the workloads on some of these servers and being able to manage workloads based on business priorities. It's really starting to become more of an integrated approach to management where it's not just looking at a server as an individual entity, but really as a combined compute resource."

To move in that direction, systems vendors need to make it easier for users to integrate blade hardware into their infrastructures. IBM has focused on that for some time, and last spring announced that it was integrating Brocade Communications Systems and Cisco Systems switches into BladeCenter, IBM's blade server line.

In the fall, IBM went a step further and said that it was opening hardware specifications to BladeCenter to make it easier for third parties to develop network interface cards and other adapters for the blades.

Looking ahead, the focus is on opening IBM Director, the management software for BladeCenter, so that third parties more easily can hook their management tools into the IBM Director framework.

"It's the idea of trying to get down to a single console," says Rob Sauerwalt, global brand manager for software and service offerings for IBM's eServers.

HP is heading in that direction, as well. In September, HP revamped its approach to blades, forming a group that combines server, services and management software expertise to help users create integrated environments on blades. Called BladeSystem, HP's new blade offerings include management and virtualization tools to automate tasks and improve utilization.

Going forward, HP will focus on enhancing virtualization on blades and integration with third-party management tools. But the bottom line is to create one management interface where policies can be set to automate how workloads are distributed across a group of blades, says Lee Johns, senior software director in HP's software global business unit.

"Simplicity is the key," he says. "The company that makes it easiest to manage blades will win in this market."

A shifting market

Blade management is where RLX Technologies Inc. hopes to shine. The blade pioneer late last year announced that it was scrapping its hardware business to focus on management software as a result of growing competitive pressure from HP, IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and now Dell Inc., which re-entered the market in November.

"We're well known for our management software and that's where the play is going to be for us," says Doug Erwin, CEO of RLX.

Analysts aren't surprised by RLX's decision, but say that it will be important for RLX to find a major vendor willing to replace its own management tools with RLX Control Tower. RLX is close to landing a deal with a major computer company to offer Control Tower on its blades and rack-dense servers, Erwin says. Dell is speculated to be the company, but neither RLX nor Dell would comment.

Either way, with a large OEM pushing Control Tower, RLX might be in a good position as management tools become more important in the market.

While blades largely have been used for Web serving and high performance computing, companies now are starting to look at blades as a viable platform for more critical business applications, such as ERP and databases, says Jessica Yang, an analyst at IDC.

At the same time, the cost of the systems is heading down, especially with Dell now in the market. But the systems still command a price premium. Gartner estimates that blades cost about 10 percent more than comparable 1U servers. IDC says that the gap is closing with blades representing a cost savings if users bring in at least four systems.

As the blade market becomes commoditized and as users put more business-focused applications on those servers, systems vendors will have to differentiate themselves on the management tools they provide, analysts say.

"Operational aspects are really why people buy into blades in the first place," HP's Johns says. "If you don't deliver on that promise, then you're not delivering on the true value of blades."

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