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HP Overhauls Server Blade Platform

The new c-Class platform will replace the p-Class family, enabling users to cut acquisition costs, energy consumption, and cooling requirements. It will offer higher densities, enhanced management capabilities, and the ability to mix and match server and storage blades within the same chassis.

Darrell Dunn

June 13, 2006

5 Min Read

Engaged in a head-to-head battle with IBM for dominance in the fast-growing server blade market, Hewlett-Packard is overhauling its blade architecture to enable higher densities, reduced acquisition and operational costs, and enhanced management capabilities.

The company today introduced the c-Class portfolio, which will replace its existing p-Class server blade offerings with new chassis, blades, fans, power supplies, and management control.

"This design is a significant leap forward for the industry," says Mark Potter, VP of BladeSystem for HP. "Previous introductions by our competitors have really been tweaks to existing systems, and not a real extension of a bladed architecture to meet demands of the customers."

Sun Microsystems recently announced plans to add new blades based around its Galaxy architecture.

IBM recently made several announcements in support of its BladeCenter platform, including a third-party, $100 million venture capital fund for ecosystem partners; continued expansion of its Blade.org consortium to 75 members; and the introduction of a 10-Gigabit Ethernet switch.

According to market researchers IDC, the revenue in the server blade market grew by 43% in the first quarter of 2006 compared with the first quarter of 2005, to more than $591 million. IBM and HP currently control more than three-fourths of the market, with IBM holding a 40% market share in the first quarter, and HP weighing in at 36%. Dell ranks third, at 11%.

Today's HP announcements represent a major departure from its current BladeSystem platform. For example, the new c-Class platform will require the use of new chassis and blades that are noncompliant with HP's existing platform, but which will provide significant new advantages, according to Potter.

These include reducing acquisition costs by up to 41%, data center facilities costs by up to 60%, and initial system set-up time savings by 96%, Potter claims. In total, the new platform will allow data centers to achieve a 200-1 device-to-administrator ratio.

Also, the HP Insight Control manager will provide a tenfold improvement in human resource deployment for many IT tasks, Potter says. Insight Control integrates tools to unify and automate management of physical and virtual servers, storage, networking, power, and cooling through a single console.

In addition, using algorithms and processes originally developed by HP's Imaging and Printing Group, the c-Class platform also will include an Onboard Administrator. This feature allows users to control, monitor, troubleshoot, and repair BladeSystem products through the use of a 2-inch interactive LCD panel on the front of the blade chassis that is similar to control panels found on HP printers.

Another new feature is the Active Cool Fan, a high-efficiency fan that is mounted on the back of the blade chassis, enabling a 30% cut in air conditioning requirements and a 50% reduction in energy consumption, Potter says. The new fan is based on electric inductive motor fans similar to those found on radio-controlled airplanes. The fans provide high-power air flow, but had to be re-engineered by HP to make it feasible for use in high-volume, high-reliability server installations.

The Virtual Connect Architecture will allow users to create up to four redundant interconnect fabrics. The c-Class platform also will provide the ability to mix and match server and storage blades within the same chassis. The chassis will support up to six hot-plug SAS or Serial ATA drives in a direct-attached environment, or up to 15 shared storage blades for an entire enclosure to share.

HP also is introducing one- to four-processor blades based on Intel Xeon and Itanium processors, and Advanced Micro Device's Opteron processors.

Tim Dougherty, director of BladeCenter strategies for IBM, says he believes blade customers do not want to deal with major departures from their existing infrastructures.

"The HP platform appears to be a complete break with the current blade implementation," Dougherty says. "For customers who have already bought into their products, this may not be that great of a situation."

Dougherty says that as IBM has brought out new generation blade chassis in 2002, 2004, and 2006, it has maintained compatibility so that existing blades can swap out with new chassis designs.

HP says it will continue to support its p-Class server blades through 2012.

Some earlier customer reaction is positive.

Tony Linville, senior manager of infrastructure services for CernerWorks, a provider of health care IT solutions based in Kansas City, says he would have preferred that the new HP blade platform had maintained a common chassis, but doesn't see the switch to be a major issue. He said he's looking forward to the improvements promised with the c-Class platform.

"The improved integration of power supplies into the chassis, the enhanced air removal capabilities, and the added power distribution and redundancy in the backplane are all features that didn't exist with the p-Class systems," Linville says.

CernerWorks has about 2,500 HP blades in operation, and anticipates adding about 1,800 over the course of the next year.

"I don't see any real downside to what they've done. I only see improvements," says Kevin Donnellan, director of enterprise infrastructure services for the Screen Actors Guild's Producers Pension and Health Plans. "Unless you're a very small shop and get stuck with a very under-populated (old) chassis, I don't see the problem. And blades in general don't lend themselves to use in small numbers."

The c-Class chassis and blades will enhance the reasons why Donnellan helped move the SAG data center to a blade implementation about three years ago -- consolidation with increased densities within a limited data center footprint.

"From what we've seen at this point, there will be a 30% reduction in chassis size, about double the total server density, lower cost per server, and an improved power configuration," he says. "I think they took customer concerns to heart. We were participants in a blade advisory council, and they took a lot our suggestions for reduced footprint, reduced cooling, and localized storage."

Kevin Galvin, director of LAN services for Sodexho, a Buffalo-based provider of food and facilities management products and services, says the enhanced monitoring capabilities with LED readout on each chassis will be a welcomed change.

"You're not always in front of your computer," he says. "You spend a lot of time walking through the data center, and you want to be able to get the touch, taste, and feel as you walk by."

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