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TECH TALK: Disruptive Technologies: The Tech Utility – Blade Servers (Part 2)

September 4th, 2001 · No Comments

Server design is undergoing a change. Write Stephen Shankland and Michael Kanellos (News.com, February 28, 2001):

IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems and others already sell servers just 1.75 inches thick, similar to the thickness of a standard pizza box. The measurement is known as 1U. Right now, a rack can hold 42 1U servers, each in its own enclosure, sitting horizontally. In the future, a rack of the same height will be able to hold hundreds of ultradense servers–basically exposed motherboards stacked vertically in groups inside enclosures that are each several Us high.

For years, server designers focused on boosting the power of single servers by increasing the number of CPUs, squeezing every last iota of performance out of software and pushing to restrict crashes to less than five minutes a year. But with the arrival of the Internet, companies have decided to fill racks with dozens of less powerful machines to accommodate immense amounts of Web traffic.

Initially, these superskinny servers will be full-featured designs like today’s models. But later, the devices will be blown apart into separate components, IBM and Intel say. The philosophy will resemble stereo components, in which different boxes handle different tasks–only instead of different modules for CD players and tuners, there will be different boxes for CPUs, storage and network communications.

A blade server combines CPU, storage, input/output, and some routing to create a
generic processing unit. Writes Andy Gibbs:

Blade design, sometimes called ultradense or hyperdense, may turn into an ideal option for Web serving and other processing-light and transaction-heavy applications.

A design benefit of these blade systems is that they use a specialized high-speed bus to connect the series of exposed motherboards – it’s like plugging in oversized expansion cards. These headless servers can maintain fast, rock solid
communications at gigabit speeds with each other via their interconnection bus, and also can be managed better.

There are no cables coming from each server because all of its communications are sent and received through the special bus, allowing racks to be really cleaned up and organized. Some systems need as few as six cables for a fully loaded rack when connected to power, storage, and the network.

This new generation of servers will provide disruptive to many existing companies. Writes Milunovich of Merrill Lynch:

If web centers and blade servers are the future of computing, almost every enterprise vendor could be affected. Enterprise winners are determined by where commoditization occurs and where margins reside. Our analysts argue that there are no longer independent server, storage, software, and networking segments or business models. Web centers and blade servers bring consolidation to the physical level.

As with many other disruptive technologies, the innovation is being driven by start-ups like Egenera, RLX Technologies, Scalant and Fiber Cycle.

Tags: Tech Talk

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