Volume 4, Number 24 -- June 20, 2007

IBM Rejiggers BladeCenter for SMBs

Published: June 20, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

If you want to sell servers to small and medium businesses, here is a very simple rule of thumb: Engineer a box that plugs into a normal wall outlet, like a PC does, and they will proliferate like mushrooms in a musty cave. Try to sell a sophisticated 220-volt blade server chassis to these customers, and SMB shops will balk and therefore not receive the many benefits of the blade server architecture.

With a new BladeCenter-S chassis that IBM previewed last week and that it plans to start selling in the fourth quarter, the company hopes to change the dynamics of the blade server market. IBM, like Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Dell, and a number of other players in the blade server arena, wants to bring integrated networking, system management, storage, as well as shared peripherals and reduced power consumption, not just to large enterprises and their crammed data centers, but to any place in an office setting, shop floor, or closet where a server has to sit.

"While blade adoption has been spectacular, it has been focused on enterprises," said Jim Gargan, vice president of brand management for the System x server line at IBM during a Webcast launch of the box from IBM's Raleigh, North Carolina, development lab. "Today, we are taking blades to the masses, from Wall Street to Main Street."

Gargan cited projections from IDC that indicate the blade server market should grow at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 36 percent between 2005 and 2010, reaching about $12 billion in annual sales; he also showed off a chart showing that SMB spending on servers was expected to grow linearly from just under $22 billion in 2005 to around $25 billion by 2010. Clearly, IBM is trying to get the SMB server spending curve to arc over to the blade server curve, which is rising a lot faster, not just because blades are a good idea, but because they engender a certain amount of vendor lock in. When you buy a blade chassis, you are buying into a whole ecosystem. The SMB market represents about 20 percent of IBM's overall sales, and about 50 percent of its sales go through the reseller channel. So IBM wants to get resellers fired up to chase the SMB space with blades, too.

To make the BladeCenter chassis and therefore its line of blade servers more appealing to the SMB masses, IBM has made some minor tweaks to the current BladeCenter chassis. First, rather than using the new 9U form factor chassis, which holds 14 blade servers and which has 1U of space on the top and on the bottom of the rack for cooling, the company appears to have repurposed the prior form factor of the original BladeCenter chassis, which was a 7U form factor. Then, instead of supporting 14 two-socket server blades in this chassis (which both the first and second generation chasses could do), IBM restricts the BladeCenter-S chassis to only six blades.

And because SMB shops are not interested in buying a separate disk array and tend to buy integrated storage with their servers, IBM is adding a dozen disk drives (six on each side, stacked two high on either side of the blades, which are in the center) to the chassis. IBM did not say how this storage attaches to the blades, but the normal IBM blade servers usually have room for two disks for local operating systems; presumably these disks are for external RAID arrays that link to the blade servers in the chassis in some manner. (iSCSI would be perfect for SMB shops.) Rather than support the high-performance 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches in the top-end BladeCenter-H chassis, the BladeCenter-S chassis will use regular (and a lot less expensive) Gigabit Ethernet links between servers and the outside world.

And, most importantly, the machine will run on 110-volt power, or 220-volt if customers want that, too.

Another important thing for SMB customers is that the same blades, switches, and other peripherals they buy for the BladeCenter-S chassis for the offices, shop floors, and closets today can be plugged into any of the remaining chasses that IBM has created in the five-year history of the BladeCenter product. (IBM has special boxes aimed at telecommunication and service provide companies, which are only 20 inches deep instead of 28 inches and which run on DC power instead of AC power. There is also a chassis aimed specifically at customers who are within tight energy budgets, called the BladeCenter-E.) So all of the blades that IBM sells--the HS21 Xeon, LS21 and LS41 Opteron, JS21 PowerPC 970MP, and QS21 Cell blades can all plug into this box. It is unclear how deep the BladeCenter-S will be, but the one in the pictures is 26 inches deep. The product is still in development, so it could change.

Prices were not announced for the new chassis.

While IBM's pictures of the BladeCenter-S show it sitting on a desktop, it looks like customers will have to have a very big desktop to plunk a BladeCenter-S machine on top of. Moreover, in the picture, you cannot hear the noise that a set of six blade servers and a dozen disk drives makes; it will be substantial.

Big Blue is being very careful to protect customer investments in the blade servers with the BladeCenter family, but it may turn out that the less-deep 20-inch chassis is a better option for SMBs, just because those extra inches make it less of an office box. In fact, it would be fair to argue that what SMB customers really need in the age of the multicore processors is a set of single-socket blade servers with small 2.5-inch SATA disk arrays (which are quiet and consume little power) that can fit in a chassis that is only 12 inches to 15 inches deep. These could be the same height as the current BladeCenter blades, but because there is only one socket, the blades would not have to be as deep.

Even with the relatively large BladeCenter-S chassis, it might also be interesting to see a desktop supercomputer being created from five Cell blades and a single Linux-based LS1 or HS21 blade or AIX-based JS21 blade.

The one thing that is baffling, considering the channel orientation of the SMB market, is why IBM pre-announced this product last week when it is not shipping until the fourth quarter. While enterprise customers not only want, but need, lots of time to plan the acquisition and installation of giant systems--and therefore their announcement does not necessarily disrupt revenue streams all that dramatically--the reseller channel lives and dies by what it can take an order for today. If you throw a product into the mix that can't be sold for many months, it can really mess up channel sales.


IBM Tweaks BladeCenter H Chassis for Telcos

IBM Offers Incentives on i5 iSCSI Links to BladeCenter Blade Boxes

IBM Announces BladeCenter Kickers

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