A Small Business Technology Guide to Blade Servers

Monday Nov 15th 2010 by Drew Robb
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Does a blade server make sense for your company? Our small business server expert explains blade servers, their pros and cons and which small businesses can benefit most.

Is Your Next Small Business Server a Blade Server?

Remember Don Johnson's cell phone on Miami Vice? Mobile devices have certainly gotten a lot smaller since then. The same thing has happened with monitors, laptops and countless other gadgets. So it was inevitable that it would also happen to small business servers.

Enter the blade server -- essentially a variation on the rack server but a whole lot smaller. The advantage is that you can pack a whole lot of power into a much smaller space. And that's why companies with hefty small business server needs are beginning to experiment with blade servers as part of their small business IT strategy.

Broadnet Teleservices, for example, ordered a few dozen IBM BladeCenter blade servers. This 22-employee provider of telecommunication services is one of the fastest-growing companies in Colorado, and small business servers play a vital role in its operation.

"Before we began using IBM blades, installing servers was a multi-day chore with substantial cabling requirements," said Brian Brown, chief technology officer of Broadnet Teleservices. "We have cut our maintenance time by well over half, our server space requirements by half, eliminated substantial travel, and reduced our need for remote assistance."

Server Blades of Glory

Server blades represent the hot spot in the server marketplace. While overall server revenues have struggled for the last couple of years and only recently showing signs of recovery, blade sales have gone up. From next to nothing a few years back, they now represent 14 percent of the server pie. This amounts to over $5 billion a year for blade servers alone.

"Blade adoption continued to gain momentum as blades accounted for its largest portion of total server revenue since the form factor came to market," said IDC analyst Jed Scaramella. "IT organizations are realizing that blade technologies can help them keep pace with ever-changing business demands while simultaneously simplifying their IT infrastructure and improving asset utilization, flexibility, and energy efficiency."

Probably the best way to understand blade servers is to consider them as a data center-like infrastructure in a box. The box is known as an enclosure or chassis. The fans, power supplies and connections are all inside the chassis. Instead of running 20 servers individually, you can use 20 blades in an enclosure and run them as though they were one unit.

"There are three parts to a blade system: the blade server; the chassis, which houses the blade servers and provides power and cooling; and communications devices and connections [also housed within the chassis] such as switches to connect [the blades] to the network and to storage devices," said Kevin Komac, a systems specialist at CDW.

The enclosure pools, shares, and optimizes power and cooling across all the blades so that more blades can fit into a typical rack space. Since fewer fans and other components are required per server, you can pack a lot more in.

"Small businesses can use blade systems for simple tasks like sharing files and printers, and deploy applications," said John Gromala, director of product marketing for HP servers and software. "A blade server is a perfect fit for SMBs that are growing at a rapid pace or that want to be prepared for future growth and advances in technology."

Companies can start small with one enclosure populated by a few blades. As your business requires more computing power, you can slide more server blades into available slots is far less time than traditional SMB servers or racks.

Pay Attention to System Memory and Power Demands

"Look for blades that offer the most memory, as this is usually a major bottleneck," said Bob Zubor, a manager for IBM servers.

Potential small business IT buyers are also warned to pay close attention to power and cooling demands. Blades pack a huge volume of processing capacity into a tiny space. The downsides are heat generation and a hearty power appetite. There is no point in getting enthusiastic about blades if your building won't accommodate them.

"We found that the blades require about fifty percent more power than the equivalent non-blade machines," said Brown.

The HP Power Advisor is a useful tool that helps you to estimate the power consumption and to select the proper components -- including power supplies at a system, rack and multi-rack level.

Spend time figuring out which vendor's blade set up is best for you. If you make the wrong choice, and want to change to another vendor, those blades won't fit into your enclosure. The rule is that blades only work with that specific vendor's enclosure. Compatibility may come eventually, but it is not anywhere in sight at the moment.

Do You Need Small Business Server Blades?

"There is often a misconception that blades only make sense for huge companies that require hundreds of servers," said Komac. "This is simply not the case."

His logic is this that when a company buys a small business server, it requires more than just a box. It also needs to have cables, space for the server, power, switching for the server, and of course, it has to take the time to install all of that, in addition to managing it. While blades are probably not a viable option if you only need one or two SMB servers, they start to make financial sense for small business computing once you need four or more physical servers, according to Komac.

According to IDC, the big two main blade server vendors are HP with 55.8 percent revenue share and IBM with 24.2 percent. Dell also earned a double digit blade percentage, which doesn't leave many others in the game. Realistically, small business IT only needs to consider those three and possibly also Fujitsu.

HP Blade Servers

HP probably offers the most extensive range of blade servers: The BL280c is a basic blade server with a powerful processor, 2 GB of memory and a starting price of $1,509. According to HP, this is good choice for SMBs that want to consolidate all business applications, messaging, and file sharing into a bladed environment at a low acquisition price.

A good way to begin is with the HP BladeSystem c3000 Starter Kit. It has only one part number (580250-SBB), making it easy to order. According to HP's John Gromala, the kit costs $9,999, a savings of 22 percent over buying the components separately. It includes a c3000 Enclosure, a networking switch, power cords, power supplies, fans, a DVD drive and two HP Proliant BL460c G6 blade servers, each with 4 GB of memory.

"The result of using blades over traditional servers is you do more with less: less power, cooling, datacenter footprint, management, head count, and servers to buy," said Gromala.

IBM Blade Servers

The IBM BladeCenter HS12 has a base price of $1,289. Like HP, the company offers a wide range of blades. Broadnet Teleservices, for instance, chose IBM. In conjunction with reseller CDW, it initially looked at products from IBM, HP and Dell.

"IBM BladeCenter and its blades appear very expensive on the surface," said Brown."They cost about three times as much as comparable individual hardware but the savings in time and support should mean the return on the investment within a year. IBM's leasing program provided an easy way for us to buy without negatively affecting cash flow."

He cautioned, though, that server blades are not for non-server-room environments. Not only are the power requirements onerous, they are so loud that Broadnet had to isolate one IBM BladeCenter unit in its own space.

"They sound like jet engines, but in the end, they are more reliable and easier to maintain than any other system I have worked with," said Brown. .

Fujitsu and Dell Server Blades

If you require quiet blade servers, Fujitsu offers the BX600 blade, which starts at $1,720. "The BX600 can be an excellent choice for space-constrained customers and is very quiet in operation," said Richard McCormack, senior vice president of server and solutions business, Fujitsu America.

Finally, Dell offers real value and often features special deals on blades in its website. The M605 costs $1,099 for a model with excellent AMD processors and 2 GB of memory. IBM and HP might struggle to compete with those prices.

Komac noted that not all blades are created equal and prices will vary. This is partly due to the cost of the blade itself, but also based upon the chassis it requires as well as the supplemental drives and the memory or processors you may require for the systems you plan to run on it. These items should be itemized before comparing solutions between vendors.

"Because some manufacturers require a new chassis for each new blade model they produce, businesses should look at the flexibility of the blade system as a whole before making a decision," said Komac. "If you need to continually upgrade the chassis as you scale up your data center with blade servers, that will become a cost factor."

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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