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Role of brick and blade servers in the data center

Bricks, blades not a cure-all, but they offer power, save space

Though "bricks and blades" may sound like a bar for masons and hockey players, the phrase actually refers to two types of new hardware that could seriously change the data center. Both are new, modular servers to which components can be connected. Blade servers are thin units that can share a single chassis, and users can add additional processors or "blades" to them. Brick servers also are designed so that multiple servers can slide into a single chassis, and components such as memory and storage can be added to them.

"Blades are an important piece of the data center, allowing customers to do real e-business workloads," says Tim Dougherty, director of blade server strategy at IBM Corp.'s Somers, N.Y. offices. "Over time, blades will get more powerful and so will be able to run more applications."

An important piece of the data center, yes, but how will they work with mainframes? Will brick and blade servers replace mainframes or simply work beside them? We put these questions to a variety of experts, including industry analysts, a CTO and a data center vendor.

To see one of the first effects that these servers might have on the data center, simply look at the nearest thermometer. "One serious effect these systems are having is that power and heat density in a data center increases sharply," says Carl Claunch, a vice president at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "Rack-dense systems, blades and bricks, while not excessive when considered one by one, combine into a rack area to push the average up almost an order of magnitude."

According to Claunch, traditional data centers are typically designed to support an average range of 40 watts per square foot of floor space, while data centers with brick and blade servers need to be designed to a density target of at least 300 watts per square foot. Don't forget to consider the additional heat removal required, and pay special attention to potential temperature variations, hot spots and inadequate airflow.

But, if you're a company that has a substantial deployment of "pizza box" servers (1U and 2U Wintel and Lintel servers, that is), blade servers can actually reduce the amount of space, power and cooling needed for the total number of servers.

"The big advantage that we see in brick and blade servers is that they take up less space and have common power, network and cooling infrastructure," said Bryan Harwood, an infrastructure architect with Galileo International, a Denver travel agent portal with a large server infrastructure. Harwood also thinks that blade servers have an advantage in price/performance. "Where we're really looking at saving is in moving off high-performance Unix environments to ... Wintel or Lintel environments that provide better cost performance over time," he said.

So when does it make sense to purchase brick or blade servers? Well, clearly, when you've already got numerous business-critical PC servers distributed across the organization.

"For many data center managers, the advent of brick and blade servers are helping them centrally integrate many of the small servers that have been distributed throughout the organization in the past few years, providing a lower-cost, better-managed infrastructure," IBM's Dougherty says. Alternatively, these servers can be a wise investment when an organization is making new purchases. "If a company is looking at purchasing dozens of Intel-based servers, then blades may be a good alternative or complement to the infrastructure," he says.

"If you're being charged by space for your servers, it makes sense to look at blade servers," says Robert Wiseman, CTO of Galileo International. "They take up about half the room, compared to traditional 'pizza box' 1U or 2U servers."

According to Wiseman, the management is simpler. "There's little doubt that the trend will move back toward consolidated architectures [like blade servers], as the price comes down," he said.

But what about their effect on mainframes? Will they replace them or push them out the data center door? Not according to Dougherty. "Blades will work in tandem with other servers in the infrastructure. They don't directly compete with mainframes, since they aren't able to do large-scale SMP workloads, like transaction processing and large database applications."

Gartner's Claunch echoes Dougherty's view. "When space is not an issue, lowest cost is important or applications need a large SMP server to scale up, then it would be premature to install blade systems today," he said. Instead, expect to see brick and blade servers used to scale applications horizontally -- applications like collaboration, e-commerce, and perhaps even newer classes of applications like voice over IP.

In the end, there's no doubt that brick and blade servers will be an important component of many data centers, especially for applications that scale out, instead of up. Organizations with many standalone Intel servers or racks of "pizza boxes" should evaluate brick and blade servers as they replace or update equipment.

David A. Kelly is a business, technology and travel writer who lives in West Newton, Mass.


>> Gartner's Carl Claunch will be speaking at TechTarget's upcoming Data Center Futures conference. There will also be a session focusing on the bricks and blades of the data center. Read more about this session, speakers and get conference details.

>> Read about the basics and ins and outs of blade servers in this IBM Redpaper, "The Cutting Edge: IBM eServer BladeCenter."

>> Find a variety of news and research reports on brick and blade servers at

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