Small blade servers are a big draw

If attendance at their flagship trade show is any indication, blade servers have made their mark on the hardware scene.

The Server Blade Summit held last week in San Jose, California, had a much more impressive showing than at the inaugural 2002 event, which shared the conference center floor with a networking event. Several sessions were standing room-only this year, and a wide range of vendors, from giants like IBM Corp. to smaller security vendors such as Blade Fusion Ltd., vied for the attention of attendees.

While sales of blade servers have yet to take off in significant numbers, the technology clearly has captured a growing following and provides a new focus for innovation in the hardware industry.

"Last year the conference was relatively empty," said Wu-chun Feng, team leader of the Research And Development In Advanced Network Technology (RADIANT) group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico. "You would be lucky to have 10 or 15 people at each session. All of a sudden this year, it's all about blades."

Blade servers first caught the eye of the server world when RLX Technologies Inc. rolled out a system in 2001 that could fit more than 300 servers in a rack that would typically have housed 42 regular rack servers.

The major server vendors were slow to come up with their own blade designs and initially challenged the effectiveness of RLX's newfangled products. Two years later, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Dell Computer Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have all launched blades of various shapes and sizes and have incorporated the systems into their overall server strategies.

"It blows me away to think that three years ago this month, we were sitting in a conference room with a pencil and some paper designing our first system," said Chris Hipp, founder and former chief technology officer at RLX, who is credited with developing some of the early ideas for blades. "Now, three years later, blades have their own conference, and the big guys in the industry are giving talks about how blades will change the world."

Blade servers have drawn the interest of vendors for several reasons. The thin design allows more computing power to be packed into a smaller space than typical 1U (1.75 inches) rack servers. A shared networking and power infrastructure helps cut down on the numbers of cables coming off of a rack. And the compact systems help cut costs by lessening the amount of space needed in a data center and by reducing power consumption.

The benefits of blade servers were one reason the big boys attended this year's show, bucking their absence at last year's event.

In 2002, three engineers from Sun dined on hot-dogs from the conference center food court and skulked from presentation to presentation, maintaining a low-key presence at the show. This year they enjoyed a typical trade show buffet of noodle salads, sandwiches and chocolate cake while giving demonstrations of their new blade servers.

IBM was absent at last year's show, but this year it sent Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM's xSeries servers, to give a keynote speech to a packed house. He pointed to cost- and space-saving advantages of blades, and said the market offers an interesting place for vendors to show some of their engineering prowess.

The tight confines of a blade server chassis require server makers to pay special attention to cooling issues and how they set up their networking and storage infrastructure around the servers. Bradicich said he expects blade server designs from a company such as IBM that invests heavily in research and development to edge out more cost-conscious competitors like Dell Computer Corp.

The market opportunity is small for a company that doesn't invest much in research and development, Bradicich said in an interview.

"You need to overcome systems management issues and cooling. These are things that a company without R&D investments will not be able to enjoy," he said.

Even with its attention to design, IBM, like most of the major vendors, has not pushed as hard as RLX to cram hundreds of blades in a rack. Most vendors have come up with designs that save space compared to traditional rack servers, but not to the extent that RLX has. Its ability to cram so many servers into a rack stems in part from its use of low-power Transmeta Corp. processors in some of its blade servers, the company has said.

In a presentation at the conference, Los Alamos's Feng encouraged users to consider low-power blade servers for certain types of applications, even if it means making some performance trade-offs.

Feng is no stranger to blade servers. He and two colleagues at Los Alamos unveiled a 240-processor blade server cluster last year, drawing the attention of companies looking to put as much computer power as possible in a small space. His group found that the Transmeta-based system performed well with certain scientific applications, and required less maintenance and cooling than higher-powered blades based on chips from Intel Corp. or Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

The Transmeta-based blade system at Los Alamos has yet to fail since the laboratory unveiled it last year, Feng said. The 240 processors sit in a rack that would fit in a large closet, which is housed in a hot, dusty warehouse.

By contrast, an 18-processor Intel-based system at Los Alamos fails after 10 minutes in the same environment, by giving incorrect results when running benchmark tests, Feng said. When the Intel-based system is placed in a costly, specially-cooled datacenter, it performs on a par with the Transmeta-based system, he added.

This relationship between how tightly blade servers are stacked together and the environment they sit in could play an important role in blade server adoption, according to Feng. Many early blade users come from the scientific computing and life sciences areas, which sometimes have limited funds to pay for specialized cooling centers for their servers.

Low-power blade systems like the Transmeta system at Los Alamos could provide an answer to groups who are unwilling or unable to invest heavily in specially-cooled datacenters for their computing needs.

Despite some of the challenges facing blade server designs, the computing model appears to have legs based on the myriad hardware and software companies rolling out blade systems and blade-specific applications of all types.

The industry enthusiasm for these products warms the heart of Hipp, as he sees a once fledgling industry mature.

"I feel fortunate to have been a part of basically a new wave in computing," he said during an interview. "These kinds of major changes in the computing industry only happen once every 10 years."

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