Volume 4, Number 34 -- September 20, 2007

HP Engineers New Blade Server Box for SMB Shops

Published: September 20, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Server makers have finally figured out that enterprise-grade blade server systems that require raised floor data center environments and 240-volt electricity are not going to appeal to small and medium businesses that tend to cram their computers into corners and closets. Last week, Hewlett-Packard, which has taken the lead in the blade server space after losing it to IBM over the past few years, is finally bringing a blade system--true to the name of its BladeSystem product line--to market that is engineered for SMB customers.

Like larger enterprises that have been embracing blade servers for certain infrastructure workloads, mid-market customers and even small enterprises have long wanted some of the ease of use, integration, and ease of installation capabilities that come through the use of blade servers, which these days integrate processors and memory, storage, and switching on all blades within a single chassis. But a blade server with 14 or 16 server slots in it is overkill for an SMB shop that might only have a half-dozen servers and will not grow beyond this point. It is a lot to ask a customer to get a large chassis and run it one third full.

The c-Class 3000 chassis that HP announced last week is a smaller box than its older and larger c7000 chassis brother, and it is designed not to just hold compute nodes, but disk and tape storage as well. And it is designed with gadgetry and a vast partner channel in tune with SMB customers to help them select, build, install, and maintain the machinery.

HP executives, who spoke during a Webcast launch event, made a big deal that this new chassis was engineered specifically for mid-market customers, what they called the "Global 500,000." Deborah Nelson, senior vice president of marketing and alliances at HP's Technology Solutions Group--which is the part of HP that makes servers, storage, and services aimed at businesses--said that companies with between 100 and 1,000 employees face many of the same problems as larger enterprises, and that they want to solve them with technology, but their requirements are different. Because, for instance, IT employees tend to be generalists at midrange shops, and they want their technology to just plug together and work.

Ann Livermore, the executive vice president in charge of TSG, said that according to HP's customer surveys, mid-market customers want technology that is tailored to them. "They are tired of being sold water-down enterprise solutions," she explained. "We have heard very clearly that customers want a bladed storage environment, and they want it all in a single, rackable system."

Well, yes. And they also want it to plug into a wall socket, which is something many of us have been saying since blade servers first came out in 2000, and they want it to actually fit in the closet, which is a tough thing to do with a half-height standard server rack. (I say this from personal experience.) Moreover, what these SMB customers undoubtedly wanted was such a machine many years ago, and the real wonder is why it has taken so long for server makers to make it happen. The good news is, server makers are finally giving SMB shops blade server setups that fit their needs better.

The new blade box, which is nicknamed "Shorty," has its blades oriented horizontally when it is in a rack and, just special for SMB customers, can be mounted on a wheeled pedestal like the Compaq deskside servers from a decade ago, before rack-mounted machines took over the data center. The Shorty chassis has room for four full-height blades or eight half-height blades--half the number that fit in the c7000 chassis that HP announced last summer and that has been driving its sales and its market share gains since that time. The Shorty chassis has a 6U form factor, compared to the 10U form factor of the c7000 chassis. It has a single Gigabit Ethernet link and three interconnect bays for linking server, disk, and tape blades together inside the chassis; the enterprise-class chassis has eight bays for interconnect switches. The unit has up to six fans (compared to 10 for the larger chassis) and runs on either 110-volt or 240-volt power. The box also has only one on-board service processor, while the c7000 has redundant service processors in case one fails. The c7000 mounts its blades vertically instead of horizontally, but when the c3000 is tipped on the side to be put on wheels for a deskside or closet unit, the blades are vertical. (The orientation does not make that big of a difference, although vertical blades help with cooling a bit.)

All existing c-Class blade servers made by HP can plug into the c3000 chassis, just as they do in the c7000 chassis, which means customers can choose from Xeon, Opteron, or Itanium blades to support their workloads and a mix of Windows, Linux, HP-UX, and OpenVMS. The SB600c iSCSI storage blade that HP announced earlier this year plugs into the unit; this device has a RAID 5 controller, a Xeon processor running Microsoft's Windows Storage Server R2, and eight SAS disks for a total capacity of 1.16 TB; SB400c expansion blades, which have six SAS drives on them, can also plug into the chassis, and another 9 TB of disk capacity can be attached to the unit and shared by the blade servers inside of it through outboard iSCSI links. The chassis also supports a DVD drive that can be shared by all server blades, the Ultrium 448c tape blade, and various kinds of switches to connect to external storage and networks.

The Shorty unit includes a 3-inch LCD screen that interfaces with the service processor, which has been equipped with simplified management and monitoring software for shops that would not know a Fibre Channel port from a Gigabit Ethernet plug. Because of the blade architecture, all components in the unit slide in and plug directly into the backplane for power and connectivity. There are no cables, which makes it a lot easier than installing surround sound on your HDTV. HP has also equipped the service processor with features to allow partners to remotely monitor and manage the c3000 chassis and its components for the many SMBs that do not have a formal IT shop to maintain the gear they tuck away in corners and closets.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this new c3000 chassis is that HP has done the work and testing to ensure that it can run in a 100-degree (Fahrenheit, people, not Celsius) environment, which I can tell you from personal experience is not hard to hit inside a data closet (what else would you call such a mini data center?) on a hot summer day in New York City. By allowing it to operate at such temperatures, the Shorty chassis is going to end up all over the company--just like minicomputers and midrange servers from days gone by did. HP is hoping to generate some marketing buzz because of this, and the Shorty chassis has its own MySpace page and HP is hoping that customers talk about the weird places they put these boxes in.

So are mid-market customers going to buy Shorty? Are they going to make the switch to a smaller blade chassis and rack them or roll them in towers? According to Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers unit, the breakeven point where this machine makes sense compared to rack or tower servers is at three to five servers. Simpler servers are easier to cost justify, but the relatively high expense of blade switching gear machines pays off after a few more servers are added to the mix. On the c7000 chassis, which is much expansive and more expensive, the breakeven point in the rack-versus-blade comparison is from five to eight servers. Clearly, the c3000 chassis is a better financial and technical fit for mid-market customers.

The c3000 chassis is available now in a rack-mounted configuration and costs $4,299; the c7000 chassis costs $5,399. Switches cost thousands of dollars, depending on the speed and bandwidth they offer, and blade servers cost roughly $2,500 to $3,000, depending on processor type and memory for two-socket blades. A base storage blade without any disks in it costs $1,599, and that iSCSI SAN blade costs $9,968. The tape blade costs $1,999. So when HP says that customers can get into a Shorty machine starting at $8,000, this is not even close to the initial sticker price of the box. A real configuration is probably something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000. Of course, this is a complete data center for a mid-market customer, all in two square feet of floor space that plugs into wall socket power.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
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