Serving the Holy Grail

Led by IBM, a range of industry players is expected to deliver later this year a variety of solutions that promise to lower the inherent costs associated with running distributed computing environments.

As enterprises seek a unified approach to managing and stabilizing complex distributed applications and systems, vendors such as IBM Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Egenera Inc. are responding with new management utilities, server blade designs, and advanced I/O technologies.

IBM has revealed it will deliver a set of software tools as part of its Oceano project by the end of 2002, attempting to solve many of the problems associated with trying to run floating-point intensive applications across multiple servers.

"Real-time, dynamic movement and re-assignment of computer systems and system components are also being addressed by Oceano," said Tom Bradicich, a distinguished engineer at IBM, with headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

First outlined in March 2001, the Oceano project is IBM's effort to stabilize applications running in distributed computing environments comprised of server blade networks and clusters.

Oceano's evolution is taking place parallel to developments in IBM's RIO (Remote I/O) technology. The company has equipped nearly all of its recently launched server products such as the Intel Xeon MP-based x440 with RIO, making upgrades easier, said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H.

Big Blue will build on this with RIO-supported server blades to be introduced this summer, entering the hot market of ultra-dense blade servers already occupied by Compaq, HP, Egenera, RLX, and others. IBM is backing Infiniband as its preferred I/O for blade servers.

The company is attacking the server blade challenge from both hardware and software angles, turning its server blade offerings into what company officials have referred to as "virtual blades."

The technology offers the ability to build racks of server blades featuring separate, hot-swappable hardware components, in addition to virtual software partitions that can be reallocated for certain tasks, or used as fail-over partitions, all on the fly.

IBM is targeting server blades for all parts of the network, including the application and datacenter layers, according to officials.

"It's becoming a bit indistinguishable where this network begins and where that front-end server ends," said IBM's Bradicich.

IBM's Oceano project and RIO technology -- along with new server blade products released this week from Egenera, in addition to existing distributed server technologies such as Compaq's ProLiant blades and HP's NEBS (network equipment building standard)-based blades -- point to a trend Bradicich called "server network convergence."

"Traditional network-geared companies that would provide you with [a switch or router] are building in functions that would traditionally be on a server. [Conversely], we're seeing server companies, like us, looking at building what you would traditionally purchase from a networking company," Bradicich said.

Following IBM's lead, Marlboro, Mass.-based Egenera this week rolled out its BladeFrame server blades, which are designed to operate together as single or multiple virtual computing systems.

HP's server blade program also takes a networking stance as it employs the NEBS in its I/O design to more easily integrate into network data centers where voice and data are rapidly converging.

In order to achieve this convergence in the datacenter, three components that have been "one-to-one" devices up to this point -- servers, networking and storage -- must be siphoned off, said Andrew Schroepfer, president and founder of Plymouth, Minn.-based Tier 1 Research.

"The combination of all three of these together is the Holy Grail to a [unified] datacenter," Schroepfer said. "It would be hard to find an enterprise that is not talking about server or device consolidations. They're being underutilized."

Schroepfer said the goal of vendors trying to unify these devices is to share functionality of key resources and disperse them across all enterprise applications.

One end-user considering the benefits of this architecture model is Lancelot Braunstein, the executive director, Technical Operations, at New York-based Morgan Stanley, and a customer of Inkra Networks, a datacenter virtualization company in Fremont, Calif.

"Things that are being sold as separate products as point solutions to me are commodity," Braunstein said. "Since they're commoditized, I'd like to see them integrated into one product. Since they can be [unified], I can create different classes of services for different clients," he said.

"What we really have going on here is disaggregation," said Illuminata's Haff. "We saw it happen with storage. We moved away from tying all the storage to the server, because if you ran out of storage, you had to buy a new server.

"The more disaggregated systems are, the easier it is to independently increase capacity and independently take advantage of new technology," Haff said.

"So the next step is to pull out the I/O from the server, and the first wave is this Remote I/O scheme from IBM," Haff said. "When we look at server blades there is no room for PCI slots, so companies will be working in remote I/O chassis to run over a number of blades or servers."

Exactly which I/O technology vendors will ultimately decide to use for their products is still anyone's guess, however, Haff said.

John Enck, a senior research director at Gartner, in Stamford, Conn., agrees, noting that vendors are watching to see which of the I/O technologies, such as Infiniband, will become the de facto standard.

As for server blades themselves, Enck thinks blades may not realize their greatest momentum until companies such as IBM, Compaq, HP, and others agree on an standard for server blade backplanes that allow customer to swap out one company's server blade with another.

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