Get ready for the blade wars. This small but fast-growing segment of the server market appears to be ready to pop as vendors release streamlined designs that are better positioned as rack-mount replacements, and in some cases, offer pricing attractive enough to draw new customers to the model.
Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard last week talked up new blade offerings and promised they will be powerful and price-competitive with current rackmount offerings.
HP, which unveiled its c-Class blade infrastructure on June 14, for example, is providing—among the initial offerings for the platform—a blade replacement for the DL480 dual-socket ProLiant rackmount, its most popular server model.
"It's huge," said Shahin Pirooz, CTO and vice president of professional services at CenterBeam, San Jose, Calif. With the c-Class' centralized networking and power capabilities, consolidating the ProLiants into a blade infrastructure gives customers more flexible bandwidth options and makes more economical use of power, he said.
At HP's c-Class product launch, Ann Livermore, executive vice president, Technology Solutions Group at HP, Palo Alto, Calif., declared HP's goal to "blade everything." Intel-based x86 CPUs will be available in July, while Opteron, Itanium and storage blades will be available in the second half of this year, HP executives said.
Just days earlier, Sun, Santa Clara, Calif., reiterated its intent to re-enter the blade market "soon"—and pledged to make its blades appealing enough to turn some heads among rackmount devotees.
John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's Systems Group, said Sun is making sure its blade offering is not only better than the current generation of products but also exceeds capabilities that are available on rackmount servers today.
"They will be more powerful and lower cost than the equivalent rack server and easier to service," Fowler said.
Sun pulled its first generation blade design out of the market last year. This time around, Sun is looking for blades to supplant rackmounts with a design Fowler pledged will stay viable for five to seven years and will contain an independent I/O bus. Sun wouldn't nail down a specific ship date, but it is thought to be timed with partner Advanced Micro Devices, Sunnyvale, Calif., which is expected to release its updated server processors in the third quarter of this year.
With blade demand heating up, "Sun really needs to have an offering to stay competitive," said one solution provider and Sun partner.
What's driving all the hoopla around blades is a continued IT need to do more with less. Businesses large and small are grappling with ways to increase processing power within the existing space allotted in a data center or closet. Businesses are turning to consolidation and virtualization.
"Blades offer easier deployment and management and require far less cabling," said Vince Conroy, CTO of FusionStorm, San Francisco.
The $2 billion blade market has been growing at about 7 percent to 8 percent per quarter for the past few quarters, said Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst at market research firm IDC. Volume is expected to increase as vendors start to price blades "at parity or below that of rack servers," Hewitt said. He also believes vendors will offer deals on chassis and blades in an effort to encourage customers to move to the new form factor. Conroy said he expects to see discounts on the chassis, which is the most costly portion of the blade infrastructure.
Indeed, an IBM spokesperson confirmed that IBM—which recently touted a pledge by one venture capital firm to invest $100 million in its blade ecosystem—has been offering special pricing for customers that buy a chassis and blades together. The chassis, in some cases, can cost as low as $1, the spokesperson said.
Livermore said HP wouldn't be offering discounts on the chassis, saying that customers will come to c-Class for the technology and won't need cost incentives. But HP is offering a special buyback program for blades from IBM, the blade market share leader.
Privately, some solution providers said the vendors have an incentive to get customers onto their platforms because it virtually guarantees a return customer. Blade chassis are proprietary and hold one dozen or more vendor-specific blades. All traditional rackmount servers fit in any rack, so it's much easier for customers to change brands. Fowler said Sun is considering a program that would offer blade updates in a subscription-based model, keeping customers locked into Sun.