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All About Blade Servers


Whether you call it a server blade or blade server, there is no denying that these cost-efficient, slim and less power-consuming servers are a hit for high-performance computing as well as for the small and midsize business (SMB). A blade server is essentially a single circuit board populated with components such as processors, memory, and network connections that are usually found on multiple boards. Since they use laptop technology, blades are usually thin and require less power and cooling than traditional rackmount servers. Blades are also designed to slide into existing servers (chassis) and overall are more cost-efficient, smaller and tend to consume less power than traditional box-based servers.

The individual blades in the chassis (also called a cabinet) are connected using a bus system . Combined they form a blade server and all share a common network connection, power supply and cooling resources. Each blade will have its own software and operating system installed on it. Blades such as storage blades with hard disk drives or those supporting Gigabit Ethernet switches and Fibre Channel storage switches can be added to a blade server. A blade server also works well with thin client devices (a client/server architecture in which no data is stored).

rackmount

The term rackmount is used to describe electronic equipment and devices designed to fit industry-standard-sized computer racks and cabinets (19" wide). Rackmount devices are also standard 1.75 inch units.

server blade

A single circuit board populated with components such as processors, memory, and network connections that are usually found on multiple boards.

Blade Vs. Rackmount

Blade servers are outgrowing at a faster rate than traditional rackmount servers. A recent Gartner study found that blade servers are the fastest growing segment of the server market. One reason is simply because blades are easy to configure and manage. Using a blade can be as easy as using an expansion card — only this "expansion card" comes with one to four processors, memory and disk storage. Blades are considered to be hot-swappable, which means you can add new blades or remove existing ones while the system is powered on. Traditionally, blade servers have been deployed in data centers and large enterprise environments, but the small business is looking at blades for the same reason enterprise has previously: They take up less floor space than traditional rackmount servers, they require less power and fewer IT management resources are required than with a rackmount. Blade servers are scalable to any physical infrastructure.

It is important to remember that blades are not suited to all applications and cannot replace a large-scale server in all instances. There is also proprietary interests at stake. An HP blade, for example, cannot be plugged into an IBM blade chassis. As a result, third-party vendor blades have to be designed for specific branded chassis.

Blade vs. Rackmount — A Quick Comparison

Blade Servers

Rackmount Servers

Shared infrastructure for fans, power supplies, Ethernet switching, storage. Networking and storage is built into the chassis, which eliminates cables.
 
Each has its own power supply, fan and cables.
Small form factor can use up to half the space of a rackmount server.
 
Large physical floor space required to house rackmount.
Installation requires no special tools or expertise, semi-technical or non-technical staff can deploy the blades. Able to hot-swap.
 
More difficult deployment. SMB may require on-site technicians to make additions to the rackmount.
Proprietary nature limits the ability to mix and match components from multiple suppliers in one chassis.
 
More choice in system suppliers for acquisitions. Multiple  components from different suppliers can be used in one chassis.
Many blades still have cooling issues due to shared cooling on the chassis
 
A variety of rackmount coolers are available. Separate fans help cooling issues.

 

Virtualization & Common Blade Server Computing Environments

Virtualization is another area of computing that has been a driving force behind blades. Virtualization involves emulating multiple servers on one hardware platform. Running multiple operating systems on a single computer or storage virtualization where you have the the amalgamation of multiple network storage devices into what appears to be a single storage unit are examples of virtualization. With a blade server you have the option to combine blades with virtualization software to consolidate workloads, each running on its own instance of the OS (using the same or a different OS). With blades, separate operating systems and applications can co-exist on one server and users of the system are able to access more memory and processing power as their workload demands it.

Blades are frequently deployed in data centers and high-performance computing environments (a branch of computer science that concentrates on developing supercomputers and software to run on supercomputers.), and can serve as application servers, databases, e-mail or Web servers, and more. Large data centers and telecommunications service providers benefit from the use of blades as they provide the means for a large business to respond quickly to changes in business conditions. High-traffic Web sites are another example of where blades can help — if you plan to host an online event, broadcast events live or something of that nature blades are a prefect solution as they allow you to quickly add memory and processing power to compensate for unusually high traffic to the Web site.

Overall, where a business or group would use several different servers for different applications, it makes sense to combine the multiple servers into one blade server to make for better manageability. Blades are often viewed as a solution for large enterprise, but really the IT cost and manageability of a blade solution makes it well-suited for smaller businesses and organizations. To this end, many of the main blade vendors market specific blade solutions and packages to the SMB.

Blade Images

A few sample images showing different aspects and types of blades & blade servers.

Reduced Cable Sprawl
(Click for larger image)
(Image Source: Dell)
8U Rackmount Blade Sever Chassis
(Click for larger image)
(Image Source: rackmountmart.com)
HP ProLiant DL385
(Click for larger image)
(Image Source: HP)
IBM eServer BladeCenter T
(Click for larger image)
(image Source: IBM)

Blade Vendors - A Reference List of Blade Brands - May 2006

HP BladeSystem (Proliant)

IBM BladeCenter

Fujitsu Siemens Computers PRIMERGY Blade Server

Dell PowerEdge Blade Server

Egenera BladeFrame System







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