IBM's blades have the edge: experts

Dell Computer yesterday announced its first server blades will ship this week and that price-wise, they come in at less than half IBM's offering, which also begins shipping this week.

Dell's PowerEdge 1655 MC enclosure and one Pentium III-based server blade starts at US$3,298, while one Xeon-based blade and IBM's BladeCenter chassis comes in at just under US$7,000. However, IBM emphasized that its blades featured faster Xeon processors versus the "two-year-old" Pentium III technology in Dell's offering.

But more robust blades at this early stage in the technology's development could miss the sweet spot of the volume market, according to Kendall Miller, CIO at Benelogic, a benefits administration company in the US. He maintains blades will be used for lighter-weight, less mission-critical applications at first, which Dell's offerings adequately address.

"I'd leave those beefier backend database servers alone where losing uptime is more expensive than the servers themselves. I'm not sure I'd yank a card [blade] next to [another blade] that might be running something mission critical," he says. Miller is currently evaluating Dell's blade offering.

While it might miss the volume segment of the market, IBM clearly has the most powerful offering.

"Blades are going to be a very hot commodity, assuming they live up to expectations, which is putting a lot of computer power into a very small amount space," says Russ Miller, director of the Center of Computational Research at the University of Buffalo, which just installed another 300 of Dell's beefier 2650 dual-processor servers last week after setting up a monster 2,000-server Dell cluster in September. All the servers were of the traditional "pizza box" variety.

"Had we waited six or eight months, we might have gone with blades," says Miller.

IBM's edge in the blade and server arena overall is in its more robust management software than Dell, according to analyst David Freund, with research firm of Illuminata.

"Dell's model is, 'Let's get out there with a simple approach,' " Freund says. "The approach from IBM and HP is to provide [management software] for the blades as well as other servers in the infrastructure."

Server blades are almost like add-in cards that slide into a chassis, providing basic common functions such power, cooling, ports, and networking for more than a dozen server units. Several chassis can fit into a server rack, thus doubling the number of CPUs that can fit into a single rack compared to the traditional "pizza box" approach.

In short, they do more with less - less power, space, cooling and with fewer moving parts.

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