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Server Vendors Cross Swords Over Blades

Sun plans to revamp its line of blade servers next year, stepping up the competition with IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

San Jose, Calif. — Sun Microsystems Inc. hopes to shake up the entrenched giants IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell when it launches a revamped line of server blade systems next year. While most of the top computer makers have staked out positions in the rapidly emerging market for blades, they agree that there is plenty of room for change in the interconnects, form factors and storage options that define those systems.

Server blades are simply a repackaging of computer servers into cards that plug into a server chassis, following the model set by line cards that plug into telecom switches. The new package holds the promise of very dense, low-cost and easy-to-use servers, but so far vendors are taking divergent approaches to building these blades.

The market for server blades hit the $1 billion mark in 2004 and could double this year, according to International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.). About one in every 10 to 12 servers is now a blade package, but that could rise to one in three or four by 2007, IDC forecasts.

Sun Microsystems is lining up several stars — a veteran designer, a hot new chip and at least two new system form factors — in an effort to make a big showing with blades. One family will be part of Sun's Netra product line, geared for telecom operators. The other, dubbed Constellation, aims at the broad mass of commercial server users.

Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim is running a new Network Systems group, which designs the commercial systems as well as all Sun's compute cards using Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Bechtolsheim and his group are keeping a tight lid on their efforts, refusing to grant interviews. The group's blades are expected to use the PCI Express interconnect and to ship in the second half of 2006.

Another Sun veteran, David Yen, executive vice president of the Scalable Systems Group, is running a parallel project that will build the Netra systems for carriers as well as all Sun's compute cards that use its Sparc IIIi and Niagara CPUs. The latter chip sports eight streamlined Sparc cores, each capable of running four simultaneous threads — essentially a 32-way system on a 90-nanometer, roughly 65-watt chip. At least one computer maker in Asia — possibly Sun's longtime partner Fujitsu — will OEM the Niagara blades for its own systems.

"You will see more customers more interested in its performance per watt than in its overall throughput," said Yen of the Niagara system. "Just the savings in the [data center's] electricity bill over a couple of years will be sufficient to pay for the box."

But some question whether such aggressive multicore, multithreaded processors are well-suited to server blades. "Generally speaking they are not," said Tim Dougherty, director of IBM Corp.'s eServer BladeCenter products, which comprise as much as 45 percent of today's blade market, according to IDC. IBM has made its BladeCenter design an open specification. "Large multicore, multithreaded processors don't lend themselves to systems that aim to scale out well with simple two-way processor cards," Dougherty said.

In with interconnects
A more significant shift in blades may be in the backplane that links 10 or more cards in a chassis. The vast majority of today's systems use low-cost Gigabit Ethernet on flexible passive backplanes that can also run Fibre Channel for storage, Infiniband for clustering or other interconnects. IBM started using Infiniband in some of its systems to interconnect all the cards, converting traffic to external Ethernet or Fibre Channel links for traffic outside the box as needed. The approach eliminated the need for separate Ethernet and Fibre Channel host bus adapter cards, saving $1,000 or more on a system. "It saves a significant amount of money," said Dougherty.

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