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HP, IBM Revamp Their Blade Server Platforms

The market leaders focus on improving manageability and cutting costs.
Large businesses with growing data centers face difficult challenges. Proliferating servers eat up too much space, consume too much electricity, generate too much heat, require too much cooling, and need too many systems administrators. Some companies are turning to blade servers to ease the pressure.

"We've experienced some real challenges putting more equipment within the same space," says Christopher Riccio, lead network analyst at Sodexho, a provider of food and facilities management. "We were really concerned about having to expand [our data center] or move to a new location."

Sodexho is deploying blade servers from Hewlett-Packard. By consolidating six racks of servers into one blade chassis, the company boosts computing power it packs into the existing data center, Riccio says.

HP and IBM--the market leaders--last week introduced upgraded blade lines designed to make the technology even more appealing and easier to manage. HP's c-Class BladeSystem will let a single systems administrator manage 200 blade servers, the company said. The ratio in many data centers is one systems administrator for 20 rack-mounted or standalone servers. HP also increased the number of blades that can fit into a single chassis, added a more efficient cooling system, and cut operating costs. However, the new c-Class BladeSystem products are incompatible with HP's existing p-Class blades and enclosures.

A Blade Ecosystem

IBM enhanced its BladeCenter platform with new management software, introduced a 10-Gbps Ethernet switch designed for blade servers from Blade Network Technologies, and revealed that a third-party venture capital firm is investing $100 million in companies building products and systems to work with BladeCenter. And 17 new companies--including Bull, Lenovo, Symbol Technologies, and Wal-Mart--have joined its group. The group's 75 members are developing services and products based on BladeCenter.

Cutting-Edge WinnersSun Microsystems, a minor player in the blade market, plans to roll out a blade offering this summer based on its Galaxy server architecture.

HP, IBM, and Sun are all competing for share in one of the fastest-growing hardware markets. Businesses spent about $2.1 billion on blade servers worldwide last year, according to Gartner. Shipments in the first quarter increased 30% over the previous year and revenue jumped 43%. Blades make up only 5% of the overall server market, but Gartner predicts they'll account for 20% in 2010.

Peter Rinfret placed three orders for blade servers in the past month. The CEO of Iris Wireless, a provider of worldwide multimedia messaging services, started using IBM's BladeCenter platform a couple of years ago because, he says, it was "the most efficient environment for us to deploy in terms of density and control." Iris handles a wide range of photo, audio, and video files.

"Right now we are in kind of a crisis mode in that we have one data center and we've got absolutely no room left," Rinfret says. Iris will buy time by replacing more servers with blades while it builds a second data center.

Blades aren't for every company. "We don't see blades as that good a fit for many small and medium-sized businesses, and that wipes out a whole segment of the market," Gartner analyst Jane Wright says.

They're a good option for companies rolling out large numbers of Web servers, supporting a lot of wireless clients and applications delivered over the Web, or creating high-performance computing clusters. That's a pretty good size segment of the market.