Why Blade Servers Still Don’t Cut It, and How They Might
August 11, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Sometimes, a good idea just doesn’t take off. OK, this is information technology, not philosophy, so let me rephrase that more accurately. Sometimes, ideas and habits that were once laudable have an immense inertia that prevents a new and perhaps better idea from building momentum in the market; sometimes, a standard however begrudgingly adopted by IT vendors can overcome that inertia. Such is the case with the wonderful idea of blade servers.
Every couple of years, the situation with blade servers boils my blood a little bit, like a squandered opportunity does for most of us. Here we are in 2008, eight years after commercial blade servers first came to market, and I find myself hoping that we are on the cusp of a new wave of innovation that will finally bring the standardization that will make blade architectures the norm, not still the exception, in the data centers and data closets of the world. Hope springs eternal, just like frustration.
What set my blood to warming again about blades last week was a set of projections from the analysts at Gartner, who released a report that said blade servers were the faster-growing part of the server space, but that the lack of standards and rapid change in the underlying technology inside blade servers are limited the adoption of blade servers. This is something I have been complaining about since Day One in the blade server space–in fact, before Compaq’s “QuickBlade” and Hewlett-Packard‘s “Powerbar” blade servers even came to market. So have other analysts–including those at Gartner–and so have customers. And, because money talks in IT, the blame for the lack of standards can be placed squarely at the feet of end users, who after surviving decades of vendor lock-in for operating systems and servers should know better. But, blade servers came out when the IT market was entering a recession after a big boom, and the data center loading, price/performance, and administrative issues IT departments were facing made us accept non-standard blade equipment rather than forcing vendors to produce better standards. The same thing happened in the recessions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which sparked a move from proprietary minis and mainframes to Unix machines with incompatible but standards-based operating systems. Common Unix APIs and functionality were better than no standards at all, and RISC iron was cheaper because of competition, so it was as good as it was going to get. Or, more precisely, it was as good as IT vendors were going to let it get until more customer pressure came to bear.
In last week’s Gartner report, the analysts reminded IT shops of some projections it has made recently. In 2007, Gartner reckons that blade servers represented about 10 percent of shipments, and between 2007 and 2012 the company expects that blade shipments will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent to represent 20 percent of total server shipments by 2012. This is not, as many had said back in the dawn of the blade server era in 2000, the same kind of adoption rate seen by rack-mounted servers. Rack servers pretty much took over the data centers of the world because of standardized form factors and density in the span of a few years in the late 1990s, and towers basically persist within small businesses and as departmental machines within larger organizations. Blades could have had a 50 percent or higher share of the market years ago, provided there were standards for blade and chassis form factors, interconnectivity of peripherals like switches, and common and open APIs for blade software management software. And that would have killed profits, so it didn’t happen. Not one of the few remaining blade players–who are the brand name rack and tower server makers–wanted standardization to happen.
“We are not suggesting that IT organizations stay away from blades–blades do address many problems in the data center,” explained Andrew Butler, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner who put together the projections. “What we are saying is that IT organizations adopting blades need to be prepared for further changes in this technology. Blade servers have been a rapidly changing technology, and we fully expect this to continue, particularly during the next five years.”
Gartner’s report, entitled Blade Servers: The Five Year Outlook, offers a number of predictions for the near term and the longer term. Here they are:
I don’t think that these projections and predictions by Gartner are all that unlikely, or even remotely radical. But I don’t think these standardizations are sufficient, and I am advocating for a far more radical approach to future server designs that takes advantage of modular system components, the manufacturing scale and commoditization that comes from standardization, and an approach that allows these components to be used in tower, rack, or blade servers alike.
I have outlined many of these ideas before in past essays (see the Related Stories section below for these), and I am weaving them all together, plus a few new ones, into a single set of goals for the server industry, goals that lean heavily on the blade approach but allow for some of the peripheral expansion that is necessary and which still drives rack and tower server sales.
Yeah, I know. This is a lot of pie in the sky. But, you never get what you don’t ask for in this world.