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Gaining An Edge With Custom Blades

Kristen Kenedy
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In nearly every aspect of the PC market, smaller is getting bigger, so custom-system builders say it's no surprise that they are starting to see more success with various blade form factors.

Blades, pegged by many analysts as the fastest-growing server category, are attracting extra attention lately because they can pack more computing power into a smaller space, are easier to manage and, in many cases, are more flexible than other servers.

What makes blades so attractive is they have a small form factor, often packed into their own chassis and sharing resources such as fans and power supplies. This makes them easier to cable, service and manage, solution providers say.

Solution providers also say there are different markets for blades. Data center customers, for example, use blades to power Internet traffic or to cluster together devices for various high-performance computing requirements. Another market is comprised of traditional SMBs, which are increasingly focusing on server consolidation and virtualization to make the most of their IT dollars.

In the first quarter, worldwide revenue for blade servers grew 43.3 percent and shipments increased 29.5 percent year over year, according to IDC.

IDC researcher Jeffrey Hewitt said the worldwide blade market has been growing about 7 percent to 8 percent per quarter for the past few quarters, but he expects volumes to increase as prices close in on the lower-cost rack-mount servers. Worldwide blade server revenue was $2 billion in 2005 and is expected to reach $10 billion by 2009, Hewitt said.

In the branded market, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are pushing their own proprietary blades aggressively as companies, large and small, look to squeeze more computing power into existing data centers and closets.

System builders, meanwhile, say they have a more competitive offering because they can provide a level of customization not possible with the branded options.

For example, Open Source Storage (OSS), Santa Clara, Calif., will preinstall virtually any operating system on its blade offering, including a variety of Linux distributions and Solaris for x86, said OSS President and CEO Eren Niazi.

That's one of the reasons Glenn Gasner, president and CEO of, ultimately chose OSS to supply 10 blades and a chassis for his Tampa, Fla., online dating startup. OSS preinstalled the CentOS distribution of Linux on the servers, each packed with 64 Gbytes of memory.

Gasner said OSS was there immediately to help when there was a problem. As it turned out, the latest version of CentOS did not work with Gasner's clustering software. So the OSS team logged into the servers remotely and reinstalled an older version of the operating system.

Niazi said OSS designed its blade chassis around an open architecture. Each 8U blade can accept a variety of motherboards for more flexibility. OSS currently supports low-power Opteron CPUs but will also support Intel's new 5100 Xeon chip.

Niazi said OSS blade sales are growing about 50 percent annually while traditional rack-mount servers currently are "taking off" at a 200 percent growth rate. He has had particular success with Web servers. OSS' ability to customize and deliver a large quantity of servers on a five-day turnaround appeals to companies with fast-growing Internet needs, he said.

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Rackable Systems, Milpitas, Calif., also promotes an open architecture for its custom blades to customers with data center needs. Rackable CEO Tom Barton said the company architected a series of low-profile blades that plug directly into a standard rack configuration. The company is seeing server growth of about 100 percent per year but doesn't break out the blade formfactor specifically, he said.

Each blade can stack side by side and back to back, allowing up to 88 blades in one rack. Power is located centrally on the rack for efficiency, and the company offers a variety of remote management technologies, Barton said.

But Barton said Rackable's biggest differentiator is its ability to customize its blade systems. "Rackable takes customization to the nth degree," he said. "We are focused on large-scale customers, and they are very technically sophisticated. Our customers want to know what kind of CPU technology we are using and the speed of the front-side bus. They want to know about the storage interconnect. We literally work at that level to specify a solution that is best for them."

While Rackable and OSS focus more on deep customization, two other big players in the system builder space have a more traditional offering.

SuperMicro, a leading supplier of server motherboards and systems, has pledged to get into the blade market for the first time this year. Tau Leng, director of marketing for SuperMicro, San Jose, Calif., said the market is ripe for blade sales. "The blade market is increasing year by year," he said. "It is definitely going to continue to be a growing market."

Leng said SuperMicro is particularly pleased with the number of low-power server CPU options now available. Intel pushed out the Xeon 5100 CPU in June, offering up a powerful new option for servers that draws significantly less power than previous Intel options.

At the same time, rival Advanced Micro Devices is getting ready to release its next server processor revision, which is expected to deliver high performance while conserving energy.

"Blades are a high-density option, and now with more low-power CPUs available, it's a great time to get into [the form factor]," Leng said.

Leng declined to reveal specific specs or ship dates for SuperMicro's planned server but said the company will offer a flexible solution with a focus on density, power and cooling. The blade server will be available under the SuperMicro brand as a white-box option, he said.

Intel, meanwhile, continues to offer its white-box blade offering as part of a joint venture with IBM. Intel offers the same blade chassis as IBM does for its BladeCenter offering, and IBM and Intel white-box blades are interchangeable, said Bryan Young, product marketing engineer for blades and storage product groups at Intel, Santa Clara, Calif.

Though some system builders are targeting data center and Internet customers with their customized blade offerings, Intel said its solution is intended primarily for the SMB market.

"What it really comes down to for small- and medium-size businesses is, it's IT in a box," Young said. "You've got all your computing centralized into one structure, networking and all the management is centralized into one interface."

Young believes one of the inhibitors to growth for system builders in the SMB market is the cost of the chassis that hold the blades. But, he said, businesses that plan to purchase five to six servers or a one- to two-year period can realize the cost savings of a blade.

More resellers have been signing up to sell blades, he said, but overall blade server sales to the custom systems channel were not as strong as they could be. Intel needs to do more education in that area, he said.

Intel will offer blades based on its new Xeon 5100 chip in August, Young added.

Blades may be small but many custom-system builders think they promise big opportunities.

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