IT Basics: Blade Server Management

Paving the Way for the Next-Generation Data Center

Blade computing has finally hit its stride as major server vendors turn their attention to offering the compute-dense, space-saving, cost-cutting servers to an ever-growing number of enterprises in a range of industries. This server trend that is on the rise and that is poised to drastically alter data center design and management.

While there are numerous advantages inherent in the physical design of blade servers, it is the management component that really delivers the value administrators are looking for, promising to revolutionize the ways that services and resources are deployed and managed in the future.

Helping to lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and significantly reduce network complexity, blade computing is paving the way for a bold new vision of the data center—a data center that draws on virtualization, dynamic provisioning and policy-based services to create a more flexible, simplified and highly manageable infrastructure.

The Blade Server Advantage

Blade servers were developed in response to the massive IT buildup of the late 1990's, which was suffering from grossly over-populated, over-staffed, underutilized and cable-ridden data centers. IT administrators needed a solution that would not only increase compute density and reduce floor space, but that would also improve resource utilization and manageability—all while decreasing complexity.

Enter the blade server. Blade servers help slash data center costs in a variety of ways, helping administrators derive more from their systems and get a better handle on their network infrastructure. Blade server design provides the following advantages:

  • Better Utilization: Blade servers can easily handle volatile network demands by helping IT administrators quickly and efficiently scale their systems. They offer pre-loaded software images, enabling IT managers to simply plug them in to the pre-wired chassis. Since they're hot-plugable, meaning administrators can respond to network demands without disrupting service.

  • Reduced Cabling Complexities: Because blade servers are designed with internal, high-speed communication channels between blades, the need for network cards and cables for each server is eliminated, and shared power supplies cut the number of electrical cords considerably.

  • More Economical Use of Infrastructure and Less Power Consumption: Blade servers are designed to conserve power and generate less heat. The number of power supplies and fans used in a rack can be significantly reduced through a shared infrastructure. Built using low-power CPUs, small, on-board disk drives, and efficient power supplies and fans, these servers significantly reduce overall power consumption.

It's All About the Management

Effective blade server management can improve reliability, availability, and scalability for deployed services, providing unprecedented value to data center managers and the businesses they run. However, the real advantage comes when the blade servers work hand in hand with the system management software. Without effective management software in place, the server—no matter how low its cost and how high its reliability—will only increase the IT manager's burden and ultimately the server's TCO.

With this in mind, smart blade server vendors have taken into consideration the management challenges data center administrators face today, in addition to the increasing customer demands for lower costs and higher service levels. Today, vendors (including Sun) are working toward a management model that treats data centers services more as a utility. To make this a reality, vendors must respond with infrastructures that can dynamically scale applications based on demand; rapidly configure and commission application services; offer vastly improved utilization; and manage services rather than individual servers. Blade servers, by their very design and with their corresponding management software, promise to deliver many of these advantages to the edge of the network.

The Key: An Intelligent Chassis

Blade server management works by treating servers as stateless computational resources that can be allocated on demand. Multiple single-board blade servers are typically housed in a rack-mounted intelligent chassis, which provides a simplified and flexible way to organize computing functionality via a unified monitoring and access point. Leveraging this physical design, evolved blade server management can provide data center managers with a host of benefits that will ultimately enable them to meet more stringent service level requirements with lower expenditures. With the right blade server management software, IT managers can expect:

  • Reduced Complexity: Blade server computing puts control of the network back into the data center manager's hands by greatly simplifying the environment. Because it aggregates many individual server resources into fewer higher-level components, blade server computing considerably reduces the amount of complexity visible to administrators.

    The intelligent chassis aggregates management information from the blade servers, while the management software aggregates this information from multiple chassis. A dedicated system controller within each chassis provides information on the pool of resources they contain, enabling the management software to configure and commission resources accordingly.

  • Unified Management of Heterogeneous Servers: Blade computing environments will likely be heterogeneous environments, supporting blades based on different hardware architectures and running different operating systems. Because the blade servers reside or are installed into an intelligent chassis, management software is able to unify service and system management across different hardware and software platforms. Again, by providing an aggregated view of the blade server computing environment, data center managers are spared the complexities and instead have a "virtualized" view that provides a consistent and powerful management platform.

  • Better Availability and Utilization Through Virtualization, Redundancy, and Specialty Blades: An intelligent chassis for blade servers presents the possibility of improvingavailability through integration of components such as dual network switching and redundant power supplies. Redundant power supplies in the chassis eliminate a single point of failure, improving reliability across the board. By integrating switching into the chassis, network connections to individual servers are essentially virtualized—eliminating hard-wired physical connections. This improves cable management issues and allows network connections for individual blade servers to be reconfigured as the roles of the servers change.

In addition, an intelligent chassis can provide the opportunity to seamlessly incorporate "specialty" blades designed specifically for content load balancing or SSL. This capability brings Tier 0 functionality into the server framework itself, rather than relegating it to outside the framework as a stand-alone appliance, helping to increase application performance and availability. For instance, an SSL blade can process SSL transactions up to tens of times faster than CPU-based SSL processing and at the same time increases blade platform utilization by freeing system processors to complete other tasks. Likewise, a content load-balancing blade enables IT administrators to seamlessly integrate enhanced traffic management and resource utilization capabilities into the blade platform. Helping to optimize traffic management, this custom hardware specialty blade can help enterprises reach higher service levels with support for direct server-to-client response, which further speeds response times and increases system utilization.

Automated Deployment and Rapid, Flexible Blade Server Provisioning

Today, traditional server deployment is still a time-consuming step-by-step process—a process that must often times be repeated in the lifecycle of the server, when repurposing it with a new application. When this complicated process is projected onto a large number of servers, it's easy to see how quickly TCO can skyrocket, especially when you consider that as the numbers of servers increase, the IT staff required to manage them scales linearly with them. Fortunately, the blade server environment presents an opportunity to leverage the service deployment lifecycle across large numbers of servers. Blade management software offers considerable labor and time savings through the capture and deployment of tested software stacks that include a configured operating system and applications. The software can easily track deployed software stacks and patch revision levels while reporting to third-party tools, enabling fast, high-volume upgrades and updates.

Additionally, for blade server management software to deliver on the notion of rapid repurposing it must allow for logical server roles. Grouping server roles by application or server type, or by the physical slot they occupy in the chassis, these policies allow computational resources to be reallocated based on need. For instance, a blade server might operate from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm as a Web server, then be quickly redeployed with an alternate software stack to process business-critical information over night. In this fashion, one server can accomplish tasks that would normally require two separate servers—a massive improvement in utilization, indeed.

Where We're Going

Early adopter IT managers are certainly benefiting from the increased density and environmental benefits provided by blade server computing. But these benefits are only the tip of the iceberg as we begin to see blade computing's true potential as a key element of the next-generation data center. Blade servers represent an opportunity to fundamentally redefine the ways that services are deployed in the data center. Combined with a new vision for a truly virtualized, provision-based data center that hides complexity and provides IT managers with even greater control over their resources, blade servers and their management software will enable businesses to finally tame their escalating IT costs once and for all.

With the decreased complexity afforded by blade server management software, enterprises are more agile and able to respond to volatile business demands as they occur. At the end of the day, this agility, flexibility and improved resource utilization will allow businesses to grow their revenues, delivering on the service levels their customers demand, while eliminating unnecessary, complexity-induced expenditures a long the way.