IBM Previews Blade Servers

Big Blue announces details of its upcoming blade server line.

Making sure its upcoming blade offering gets mind share, IBM Corp. announced details of its upcoming blade server line, BladeCenter, in April. 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 such as Intel's Xeon and its own Power architecture chips, rather than the mobile Pentiums used by the competition. Moreover, IBM 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, allowing 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 reduce heat, 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 for second-tier applications such as application servers or e-mail 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.

IBM plans to support Linux and Windows on its first blade units, but plans to 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 others 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.