IT Bets Big on Blade Servers

IT chiefs are increasingly deploying blades in strategic roles. In addition, blades -- more than any other server kit -- have emerged as hotbeds of virtualization.

It's starting to look like the high-end systems of the future -- mainframes, RISC-Unix iron, or mission-critical, ultra-dense servers -- will incorporate blade-like concepts and methods. They may even ship in blade-like form-factors.

Blades have been a bright spot in an otherwise depressed enterprise server segment; the latest commodity blade systems rival high-end platforms -- namely, RISC- and EPIC-Unix servers, if not z/OS mainframes -- in performance, virtualization capabilities, and high-end scalability. It appears that blades aren't a commodity-only play: IBM Corp. has marketed System p-based blade systems for several years; Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) brought HP-UX to its BladeSystem c-Class line-up more than three years ago. In addition, HP served up its mission-critical NonStop operating environment in an Integrity BladeSystem package almost two years ago.

Big Blue has yet to introduce a mainframe-on-a-blade, but it might one day do so. That's because the market has tilted strongly in favor of blades.

The blade segment was once seen as a lone oasis in a recession-induced hardware-buying drought that -- for most of 2009 -- crippled the midrange, RISC-Unix, and mainframe server segments. All three markets were down by 25 percent or more in the first half of 2009, for example, while sales of blade servers fell (just) 13.8 percent, according to Gartner Inc.

In the context of a depressed 2009, blade sales actually increased, albeit slightly, growing by 1.2 percent, year-over-year.

According to a recent CEO survey conducted by market watcher International Data Corporation (IDC), blades are poised to play a big role in the data centers of tomorrow. IDC found a growing willingness among corporate chiefs to deploy blade systems in strategic roles: i.e., as core or foundational data center platforms, alongside data center mainstays such as the mainframe or high-end RISC-Unix servers. Shops that have bet big on virtualization also tend to be among the most enthusiastic about next-generation blades, IDC says.

"The value proposition of blade systems, beyond consolidation and system density, is becoming increasingly clear to customers," said IDC senior research Jed Scaramella, in a statement. "IT organizations are realizing that blade technologies can help optimize their IT environments to keep pace with ever-changing business demands while simultaneously simplifying their IT infrastructure and improving asset utilization, IT flexibility, and energy efficiency."

Blades already have a leg-up, so to speak, in the data center: according to IDC, more than two-thirds of blade systems are deployed in data center environments rather than in the enterprise periphery (i.e., server rooms or wiring closets). Moreover, blades, like other data center mainstays (such as the System z mainframe), already support a heterogeneous mix of workloads. Corporate chiefs told IDC that no single workload accounts for more than a quarter (25.3 percent) of overall blade system utilization.

IT organizations are most likely to deploy business processing (25.3 percent), IT infrastructure (21.7 percent), and application development/R&D (17.6 percent) workloads in blade configurations. A sizeable percentage of these workloads are virtualized: shops virtualize on blade systems more frequently than on any other server kit, says IDC.

Not all respondents were willing to disclose the extent to which they've virtualized their blade resources, of course; the average among those that did was an impressive 38 percent, however. In other words, roughly two-fifths of blades are running a virtualization scheme of one kind or another. That's roughly twice the rate in other (non-mainframe) server segments.

As a general rule, IDC reports, "the greater the proportion blades represent the overall IT environment, the greater the proportion of these blades are virtualized."

There's an emerging expectation that ultra-dense private clouds (thickly populated with blade servers) will power a portion of the data center. CEOs seem to be thinking along the same lines, according to Scaramella. "Blades are the foundation servers for converged systems, which will become the building blocks of private clouds," he concluded. "Enterprises are on an evolutionary path away from disparate IT silos toward virtual resource pools that form an internal cloud infrastructure."

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