Blade technology moves closer to mainstream

Potential for saving space and power makes blades viable for general use

Agencies looking to meet goals for server consolidation and power saving could begin adopting blade server technology more widely, industry experts say. Some defense and civilian agencies already have installed blade systems, and industry seems to be getting ready for more.

In the past month alone, vendors have introduced products ranging from a next-generation, high-performance blade computing platform to an integrated blade computing system for smaller organizations.

SGI last week unveiled the Altix ICE 8200, the first in its new line of blade servers built to handle high-performance computing applications and large-scale workloads.

Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems earlier in the month introduced the Sun Blade 6000 Modular System, which is designed to integrate easily and without proprietary tools into existing data centers and management systems.

And IBM rolled out the IBM Blade Center S, an integrated blade computing system, to help smaller organizations reduce IT administration. The Blade Center S integrates applications used in business functions such as antivirus/firewall, voice over IP, e-mail, collaboration, backup and recovery, and file and print applications.

Blade servers have been on the market for about five years, but until recently users tended to view them as specialized systems for niche areas rather than general-purpose systems, said Clay Ryder, president of the Sageza Group.
But now, users are warming up to what blades offer, he said.

Among the big factors driving this newfound interest in blade technology are server consolidation and the green computing issue, said John Slye, manager of the federal industry analysis program at Input, a market research firm that focuses on government.

Agencies want to free up floor space in data centers filled to capacity with computing equipment, reduce power consumption and manage an explosion of data, he said.

Blade servers ' chassis with multiple thin, modular circuit boards, or blades, which can be dedicated to single applications ' are designed to offer more processing power using less rack space. Each blade can include one or more processors, memory, storage or network connections. However, they share the chassis' common power and air supply resources.

The primary reason blades haven't taken off in a big way is that the financial benefit from putting everything ' power, fan, co-processor ' inside a single housing doesn't kick in until blade usage gets to a certain level, said Peter Burris, an analyst at Wikibon.org.

'That may be changing because of energy and floor space issues,' he said. 'That may be the tipping point.'

The ICE age

SGI's Altix ICE servers are designed to reduce server sprawl. But they also address major challenges users of clustered systems face, such as system manageability, performance, scalability, power, cooling and facilities issues, company officials say.

For researchers at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the SGI Altix 8200 could offer better cost-performance than the current SGI system, which is based on an Intel Itanium 2 processor, said Thomas Michener, manager of the Fluid and Computational Engineering Group and Environmental Technology Protectorate at the lab.

SGI is offering a commodity product, but users don't lose the performance and reliability the company is known for, he added.

Altix ICE combines several commodity technologies ' such as InfiniBand networking functionality, Intel Xeon processors and the Linux operating system ' with SGI's high-performance computing capabilities.

The 8200 incorporates a next-generation processor board called Atoka, which was co-designed by SGI and Intel for high-performance computing, said Robert Ewald, SGI chief executive officer. The board lets a single SGI Altix ICE 8200 blade be powered by dual- or quad-core Intel Xeon processors and offers up to 32G of memory.

In fact, a single SGI Altix ICE 8200 rack can be powered by as many as 512 Intel Xeon processor cores and deliver 6 teraflops of performance, SGI officials said.

The SGI Altix 8200 is available in configurations ranging from 8 to 512 processors per rack. A full rack of 512 Xeon processor cores costs approximately $350,000.
IBM and Hewlett-Packard have already established a foothold in the high-performance arena with blade-based systems, which will be a challenge for SGI, according to a recent IDC report on the SGI Altix ICE. But the report states that SGI's systems could be an attractive alternative for users with midsize to large workloads.

While SGI focused on high-performance computing, Sun moved to make its blade server line more applicable to the needs of small and midsize organizations.
The Sun Blade 6000 supports three processor platforms ' Sun's UltraSparc T1 with CoolThreads technology, Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron ' and three operating systems ' Sun's Solaris, Microsoft Windows and Linux.

Aimed at small users

The Sun 6000 is geared to the smaller end of the scale, said Ryder. The company has a higher-end model, the Sun 8000, but he said it was hard to justify using that in a business or organization with 100 employees.

IBM has a broad range of blade offerings with a common architecture that lets users mix and match offerings.

IBM blades are used for the compute infrastructure for Navy's DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, said Robert Ames, Public Sector Business Unit executive for IBM's Systems and Technology Group. They went with the blade architecture about three years ago.

'The interesting thing about that is the total ship compute environment, which those blades service, is going to be replicated by the Navy across multiple ships and vessels as part of their enterprise architecture standard,' he said.

Also, officials with the Defense Department's Pentagon renovation program, which was running out of space, have consolidated on IBM blades in the basement of the Pentagon, he said. There are blade installations in the Census Bureau, and the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs departments, he said.

Ames said he cautions users that blades can't solve every problem.

The elegance of blades is that they can be repackaged in a way to share infrastructure, Ames said. But they were not designed to be a highly virtualized solution. Users in a high-end computing or mainframe environment have more scale to be dynamically flexible, he said.

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