Used to be, that if companies wanted to scale up and out, they would have to radically expand their physical footprint as well. New and bigger servers would have to be installed in the computer room, which would need to be rewired, recooled and even expanded to accommodate the “tin”. But organisations today are starting to count the cost of bigger server rooms – and it goes way beyond the acquisition cost of computing. Real estate, electricity bills and environmental issues are all contributing to the total cost of increased computing capacity, and companies are looking for solutions that won’t break the bank 

Expanding computing capacity is becoming more and more complicated – and prohibitive – as companies start to count up the cost of the physical infrastructure needed to support growing server rooms.
It’s no longer simply the cost of the servers themselves but the wiring that’s required, along with the increased power consumption; the need for more cooling – and the power and environmental issues that come with that; and the increasing cost of real estate to house it all.
And it’s not just the servers that require this expensive infrastructure: the need for storage capacity is doubling each year and many of the same issues apply to storage hardware.
The bottom line is that companies want more capacity on their servers and storage but, increasingly, they’re unable or unwilling to pay the associated price tag.
This is where blades come in: ultra-thin, ultra-light servers that draw a fraction of their rack-mounted counterparts’ power needs, blades offer increased capacity in an environmentally-friendly bundle.
“Blades have come of age,” says Andrew McNiven, business unit manager: industry standard servers at HP South Africa, who adds that the latest generation of blade servers now offers compelling benefits for user organisations.
Traditionally, blade servers have been based on Intel’s Xeon processors – and HP recently introduced a new range of Xeon-based blades: the C-Class – but new developments have seen the arrival of true 64-bit Itanium-based blades as well as recently-introduced storage blades.
There is even a range of PC blades available, for use in thin client-type implementations.
“Blades are certainly the flavour of the day,” McNiven adds.
Blade servers were first launched about five years ago, but it’s taken a while for the market to recognise the many benefits they offer, over and above the smaller footprint.
“One of the biggest barriers to their acceptance had to do with perception about the real cost of computing,” says McNiven.
Once companies started realistically measuring the cost of elements like electricity and cooling, blades started looking like a much more attractive option.
In European countries, where environmental concerns are top of mind and power prohibitively expensive, companies have embraced blade technology as the answer to pressing needs.
South African companies are not yet as conscious of these factors, but McNiven believes the rising cost of electricity, along with a growing concern for the environment, will soon jolt organisations out of their comfort zone.
“I think South African companies will soon see their electricity costs rise to the point where they become uncomfortable.
“At the moment, energy costs still come in under the radar, mainly because it’s handled by another part of the organisation and is not the responsibility of the IT manager.
“However, there is a lot of messaging out there about managing energy costs, so companies are starting to recognise the issue.”
One of the power management features of the new blade servers is the ability for the products to manage their own heat output and cooling requirements, depending on the computing capacity required.
“This feature alone can save up to 70% on the power bill without affecting performance,” McNiven says.
And companies don’t sacrifice compute capacity when using blade servers: McNiven explains that today’s Xeon-based blade servers are up to four-processor dual-core configurations.
Thanks to a recent product launch by HP, companies can now also add Itanium-based blade servers to their chassis, giving them true 64-bit performance in a convenient and cost-effective blade format.
The new Integrity servers use the latest iteration of Itanium processor (Montecito) and can scale to as many as eight cores on a single server.
And, although initial take-up of Itanium servers was slow, organisations are starting to realise the benefits conferred by true 64-bit computing – and the fact that more than 9 000 applications are now available on Itanium.
“We are seeing demand move from the Unix replacement market towards the Windows environment, with a lot of interest in SQL Server consolidation,” says Andrew Fletcher, business development manager: business critical systems in the Enterprise Servers & Storage Group at HP South Africa.
Another challenge that Itanium is overcoming is the confusion regarding “different” versions of 64-bit computing, and a growing realisation that true 64-bit Itanium computing offers its own set of benefits.
Even in the conservative South African market, companies are taking to Itanium servers for their business-critical needs, say Kevin Barnard, Unix and Itanium product manager at HP South Africa.
“South African customers are starting to do proof of concept projects with Itanium servers, especially in light of extremely favourable TPC benchmarks.”
Some sceptics have questioned Intel’s commitment to the Itanium platform, but Fletcher points out that there is a 20-year roadmap for the technology.
“There is a very strong roadmap for the processor,” says Fletcher. “Multi-core on Itanium is very much on track, as is font-side bus technology. We’re quite confident that Itanium is on track and even exceeding expectations in the area of performance benchmarks.”
He adds that the significance of the new blade servers
lies in the ability to increase computing density without significantly increasing the overhead.
“It’s also about the ability to rapidly deploy applications across different servers, and to re-resource the environment rapidly when it’s needed.”
While South African companies are not as strapped as their European counterparts when it comes to space and power, Barnard says local companies should consider blade technology for other, significant benefits.
“South Africa is spoiled with lots of space and reasonably cheap power, but companies are also looking to consolidate management across the servers, implement virtualisation, and better utilise their computing assets,” he says.
Barnard adds that blade technology is the way forward for server computing, and organisations like the idea of using a single chassis for their 64-bit servers, 32-bit servers and their storage assets.
Gaith Kadir, regional vice-president: Middle East & Africa at AMD, points out that server blades are moving from the early adopter stage to a mainstream position in the IT infrastructure.
“After just three years of product shipments, blades account for 7% of all servers sold; and IDC estimates blades will make up 30% of all server shipments by 2008,” he says.
Kadir agrees that it’s not just server density that is driving the current move to blade technology.
“Blades provide a quantum increase in system manageability and reliability over earlier approaches,” he says.
“Some of this improvement stems from the physical structure of blade systems, which forces a level of cable management and system interconnects that was unavailable in rack-mount arrangements.
“Since blades make it so easy to take system elements on- or off-line physically, users needed to ensure it would be easy from a software perspective as well. This led to the notion of “stateless blades”, systems that use their disks (if they had disks) only for bootstrap and paging operations rather than for stateful storage.
“Blades forced suppliers and users to rethink how they could simplify the management of the hundreds of servers that might be needed to handle complex tasks.
“The stateless nature of blade operations fits well with virtualisation, as presently embodied in packages like VMware, Virtual Server and Zen.”