Blade Servers: Moving Beyond the Hype


Blade servers, which about 18 months ago were being touted as the answer to every data center challenge, are again making headlines -- and this time IT professionals are at least willing to hear the promises, even if they are not totally buying into them just yet.


A survey released this week found that 85 percent of IT pros who responded said that blades were at least a "valuable" part of their long-term server plans. We should stress the phrase long-term, since blades still account for only about 5 percent of the overall server market, according to Gartner.


But clearly, the news for blades is good. Survey respondents, all from Fortune 1000 companies, said they no longer are skeptical about the relevance of blade servers, which had been a common finding of earlier surveys.


In fact, the popularity of what researchers call "scaling out" -- adding more computational power through incremental hardware, such as blades -- proved to be about equal to "scaling up," or adding powerful machines and divvying up the cycles via that other buzz darling, virtualization.


Vendors are responding. Sun is getting positive response to its new line of blades after dropping out of the market last year (other mid-tier players, including Nortel, also de-emphasized blades in their overall strategy). HP and IBM are renewing pushes behind the technology, and shipments in Q1 2006 were up 30 percent over the year-ago quarter.


All in all, Gartner predicts that blades will account for 20 percent of the server market by 2010. But their best use, the consultancy says, is for large businesses that can realize significant savings on otherwise expansive -- and expensive -- data center real estate.


For the average business, a plain old rack server is often still the best option. Back in June, the principal analyst of Pund-IT told IT Business Edge that for most workgroup purposes, commodity servers still offer the best price/benefit ratio, but advised that the blade market is in such flux that execs should keep a careful eye on it.


He added that while power costs and cooling issues tend to be the most recognizable factors in evaluating the cost of blade servers, scaling out support for mission-critical processes is always the key concern when mapping strategy.


We'd add that "mission-critical" seems to fall in the win column for blades, which offer redundancy on actual independent processors -- not just virtualized chunks of one giant box.

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