Solution Providers Report Blade Servers Not Just For Enterprises

Charles Miano, corporate vice president of HPM Networks, a Fremont, Calif.-based VAR, said that until six months ago, there was "a lot of speculative discussion" from his midmarket customers about moving to a blade architecture.

Since then, "we have customers actually purchasing them and deploying them, and many others doing proof of concept vs. having mere dialogue [about blades]," Miano said.

As a result, selling blades has gone from "an insignificant" part of HPM's revenue to what Miano roughly estimates as 5 percent of his company's business now, he said.

The blade market in general has been heating up over the past year. Blade revenue for all vendors in the space—including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell—jumped to $1.14 billion in 2004 from $583 million in 2003, an increase of 95.5 percent, according to research firm IDC.

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Currently, IBM holds a strong lead over second-place HP with 45.1 percent share in the blade market to HP's 35 percent, according to IDC. Dell comes in a very distant third with only 3.3 percent market share. Sun Microsystems is an insignificant player in the blade space at the moment, as the vendor recently discontinued its current generation of blades in favor of new ones that likely won't be available until next year.

Because blades take up less space and require less cabling than rack-mountable servers, they are a good choice for midmarket customers, who often don't have a lot of room to house large clusters of rack-optimized servers, Miano said.

"In solution stacks that require a small footprint, blades are optimal," Miano said. "I have quite a few customers who are looking to throw out servers in a server farm and use blades as an alternative."

Blades are inserted into a chassis or enclosure that can hold a number of servers, which usually have two or four processors each. Those enclosures are then placed into a rack. IBM's BladeCenter racks can hold up to 84 blades, while HP's BladeSystem is able to hold up to 96.

In addition to saving space, the enclosure system makes the blade architecture inherently scalable. Thus, the blades are good for running applications that potentially can support an infinite amount of users, such as Citrix or Web applications, solution providers said. This way, servers or storage capacity can be added as easily as sliding another server into an existing chassis as a company grows and there is a need to support more users.

"Blades are a flexible environment," said Bill Raines, server and storage specialist for CMA, a solution provider in Baton Rouge, La. "You can do a lot of different things with the same [amount of] investment."

A blade system also can include network infrastructure that normally comes in the form of external hardware, such as storage and Ethernet switches, which can be inserted into the chassis as just another blade. This makes the blade architecture even more self-contained, said Bill Nemesi, xSeries brand executive at Mainline Information Systems, Tallahassee, Fla.

"A lot of the infrastructure required to sell servers is incorporated into blades," Nemesi said. "You get that whole, integrated solution in the blade and the chassis."

Because of this, blades also are easier to manage than a large farm of traditional enterprise-class servers and thus are well-suited for midmarket customers that don't have a large IT staff on hand, said Joe Vaught, principal of PCPC, a Houston-based solution provider. "It's easier to manage one rack than 84 machines in four different rooms," he said.

For solution providers, the investment required to sell blades goes slightly beyond acquiring the usual skills required to implement more traditional server platforms, and it is essential to undergo the usual product training from hardware vendors, VARs said.

Because blades are condensed into a consolidated system that includes networking and storage, having system engineers that understand those technical needs in addition to usual server installation capabilities is key, Nemesi said.

"You have to deal with not only the server group [of a customer], but also the storage and networking experts," he said.

VARs selling blades to the midmarket also should have expertise in deploying network-management software such as HP OpenView or IBM Tivoli, since these also are an integral part of the entire blade architecture, solution providers said.