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Blade Servers: Beyond the Cutting Edge

Once used only for megacomputing functions, these compact powerhouses are now being designed and sold to all manner of businesses

When moviegoers face the huge, superrealistic mug of an entirely digital King Kong in multiplexes in the coming weeks, they'll have one of the hottest technologies in computerdom to thank for the hair-raising experience. At the other end of the computing spectrum, Air Force personnel who do their banking with Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union in San Antonio, Tex., benefit from the same technology.

That's the magic of blade servers. Originally conceived as a niche product for huge computing centers, these slim servers-on-a-rack have become the Swiss army knife of modern computing. They're being put to use in everything from supercomputers that generate 3-D imagery for movies to Web sites and corporate data centers to soup-to-nuts computing setups in midsize businesses.

They're even serving as replacements for desktop computers. A dozen people can tap into a single blade server that's carved up into virtual PCs. Blades are "for the broadest set of customers," says analyst John Humphreys of tech-market researcher IDC. "The blade platform isn't just a solution for the biggest and baddest data center operators."


That explains why blades are fast becoming the force to reckon with in the computer hardware industry. IDC expects blade revenues to almost double this year, from $1.2 billion last year. And they're poised to grow to $10 billion in 2009. If this forecast comes to pass, that will mean blades will leap from being just 2% of server revenue and 5% of server units sold in 2004 to 15% of revenues and 25% of units four years from now. That would also be the fastest-ever growth for any type of computer.

Blades are an incredibly disruptive technology, replacing much larger and more expensive computers. They're part of the shift to off-the-shelf commodity servers, since most of them run on standard Intel (INTC) or AMD (AMD) microprocessors and on the Windows or Linux operating systems.

At the same time, blades give tech suppliers plenty of opportunity to innovate. Packaged the way they are, it's easier to manage them to simplify computing tasks, recover quickly from meltdowns, and shift processing jobs from one server to another when need be. That combination of high innovation at low cost is hard to beat (see BW, 3/22/04, "Servers: More Bells and Whistles, Please").


What the industry has seen so far is just the start. Doug Balog, vice-president of IBM's (IBM) blade center business unit, says the Cell multimedia processor, initially developed for Sony's (SNE) upcoming PlayStation 3 video-game console, will soon be put to work on blades for jobs such as medical imaging. And such superdemanding processing tasks will require just a handful of blades, not a supercomputer. "This is not that far off," says Balog (see BW, 6/20/05, "A Virtual Revolution").

Blade servers are essentially circuit boards, about 12 inches tall by 14 inches deep, that are placed vertically in metal chassis, which are stacked in racks. They share power and cooling capabilities. When a blade goes bad, it can easily be pulled out and replaced with another. There's a joke going around in computing circles that the ultimate data center would be one filled with blades in racks, staffed by one technician and one dog. The techie would be there to replace blades that go bad, and the dog would be there to bite him if he tried to do anything else.

Right now, King Kong is the coolest use of blades by far. Weta Digital, a New Zealand special-effects company that gained fame for its part in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, recently put the finishing touches on Kong. Its 1,900 blade servers produce so much computing power that they rank as the world's 109th-fastest supercomputer. The blades render 3-D characters or whole scenes into 2-D images for the screen.


"Having lots of processors helps get our work turned around quickly," says Milton Ngan, Weta's chief technology officer. "This helps us get feedback on the work more quickly, and the work can be incrementally improved." While incremental improvement may not sound very exciting, it's what produces the realism -- and the thrills -- in movie special effects.

The same kind of computing power, in smaller doses, is available to run much simpler applications. Anaconda Sports, an upstate New York manufacturer and retailer of athletic equipment and uniforms for schools, uses blades to run its e-commerce Web site. The 200-person company formerly ran the Web site with conventional servers but found that it had frequent crashes that temporarily put it out of business.

"We thought blades were for big corporations," says Rob Meyer, Anaconda's director of Internet services. "We thought it was way out of our league. But the cost is right, and the performance is outstanding."

The Texas credit union example provides crisp cost and space comparisons. The company was running out of floor space in its crowded headquarters building in San Antonio. Yet it kept adding pizza-box-size Windows and Linux servers. Now it packs 14 blade servers in the space taken up by two conventional servers. At the same time, it reduced the cost of buying new gear by 30%, according to Pat Tolle, the credit union's vice-president for information technology.


The blade idea was an outgrowth of the dot-com boom. Internet startups and giant corporations alike were farming out their Web chores to companies that specialized in operating huge data centers. A handful of startups were the first to use blades, but they faded along with the dot-coms. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Compaq, before their merger, were the first tech giants to enter the fray, in 2000 and 2001.

IBM was a little late to the market, but its early revelation that blades could become a nearly all-purpose technology helps explain why Big Blue is now the market-share leader. It captured 37.2% share of blade shipments in the third quarter and a 45.1% share of revenues, according to Gartner. HP is in second place, and Dell (DELL) trails far behind (see BW Online, 9/2/04, "Is 'IBMtel' the Next Winning Combo?").

Back in 2001, deep in the bowels of IBM, a band of 30 people operating under the code name Excalibur spent months talking to customers about how they might use blades. They concluded that the technology could be used to handle a vast array of computing jobs, and they saw the opportunity to package the blades in a way that gave them some of the dependability and resilience of huge mainframes. "While others were thinking of blades as power- and space-saving, we had a very different concept," says Tim Dougherty, who has been IBM's director of blade marketing since mid-2001.


The higher-ups at IBM spotted the blade concept as a comer and blessed the project with the status of an official emerging business opportunity -- which brought a big investment in money and engineers. When IBM's first blades debuted in 2002, they took off.

IBM's latest gambit is to prepackage blades on chassis for particular industries. It offers a half-dozen of these, including one for branch banking, called "bank in a box." That one packs network servers, an e-mail server, video surveillance, and other functions into a single chassis. Early next year, IBM plans on following up with a retail-store package.

The battle for blade supremacy is far from over, however. HP claims to have a superior package of software for managing blade servers and associated storage devices. It also touts its technology for power supplies and cooling. "We're a strong contender to IBM. You'll see us overtake them in time," says Rick Becker vice-president and general manager for the HP Blade System product line.

IDC analyst Humphrey says IBM will have to stay on its game to hold the lead. "I see the blade space today as a very active battle between two industry heavyweights," he says. Kind of like King Kong vs. Godzilla.

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