A Small Business Technology Guide to Blade Servers

By Drew Robb | Posted November 15, 2010

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.



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