IBM Previews Blade Servers

Full-Flavor Xeons

Making sure its upcoming blade offering gets mindshare, IBM Corp. announced details of its upcoming blade server line, BladeCenter, Thursday. Big Blue expects to ship the Xeon-based products in the third quarter of this year.

IBM differentiates its blade offering from similar products from Compaq, HP and Dell in two ways. It will use higher-octane processors like Intel’s Xeon and its own Power architecture chips, rather the mobile Pentiums used by the competition. Moreover, it plans to bundle an array of management hardware and software with the solution, bringing technologies it developed for the mainframe.

Blade servers are single-board servers that sit vertically in a chassis that allow many simple servers to fit in a small space. Each blade is a discrete server with its own processor, storage, and I/O and plugs into the chassis for power, management, and additional I/O.

To date, most blade offerings have been targeted at the edge-of-network, handling simpler tasks such as Web-serving and file-and-print services. The first servers used low-power processors designed for notebooks to keep heat down, and, consequently, the machines were limited in their computational power.

IBM plans to use full-fledged Xeon DP server chips from Intel Corp. to make the devices suitable to second-tier applications such as application servers, email servers, and terminal services. “We want blade servers to be real servers that are ready for the enterprise,” says Jeff Benck, director of product marketing for xSeries at IBM.

Although its first release of blade products was designed for edge applications, Compaq Computer Corp. also plans to make enterprise-class blade servers. It plans to release 2-way SMP blades for more demanding applications later this year.

IBM plans to support Linux and Windows on its first blade units, but plans to follow up and bring the blade form factor to its pSeries Unix server line. Benck said IBM is working to adapt its Power architecture chips used in the pSeries to the form factor. Power processors are descended from the IBM/Apple collaboration that produced the PowerPC architecture used in Macintosh computers and IBM servers.

One of the most compelling aspects of blade servers is their potential for improved management. Because multiple machines sit in a single unit, they can be easier to manage than several servers in discrete boxes. IBM and other pitch blade products as a consolidation play.

“We use the phrase, ‘It’s about management, stupid,’” Benck says. IBM will release a version of its Update Xpress remote management software tailored to blade systems, giving administrators a visual idea of the systems. It will also incorporate some of the self-configuration and self-healing features IBM developed through its eLiza initiative into the blades. Servers can be auto-discovered by the chassis and restoring a downed server will be simplified through the PowerRestore technology.

IBM has already introduced another scalable Intel server, the x440, so its plans for a blade product might create some bewilderment. Benck says while both servers are scalable and modular, the x440 is designed to scale-up for demanding applications, while BladeCenter is designed for scale-out situations, where simple applications need more coverage.

About the Author

Chris McConnell is Product and Technology Editor for Enterprise Systems.