Blade servers arrive for the masses

2007's No. 8 most underreported tech story

The Story: Call it a trend within a trend. Blade servers have become the fastest growing segment of the server market, and for the first time accounted for more than $1 billion in sales during the third quarter of 2007. Although the vast majority of those sales were to enterprise customers, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have redoubled their efforts to push blades downmarket to small and medium businesses.

[ Slideshow: 2007's top underreported tech stories ]

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And why not? There are tens of thousands of relatively small businesses, not to mention remote offices, that already run three or more servers — in many cases with only minimal IT resources.

Both HP and IBM launched blade products aimed at the small-to-medium business market late this year. HP has the BladeSystem c3000, which can hold as many as eight blades in a single chassis, and IBM has the BladeCenter S, a six-blade chassis system with on-board storage and switch options. These may sound familiar; both companies have touted blades as a solution for the small-to-medium business market for a few years. But their newest blade servers have actually been redesigned with the needs of smaller companies in mind.

A good way to understand blades’ appeal to smaller businesses is to think about what an enterprise datacenter has that a small shop doesn’t — and how the new generation of blade servers can help fill those gaps.

First, datacenters offer a controlled environment. Heat and dirt are server killers, but a small business may well stick a server under a desk or in a closet. So the new breed of blades comes with a chassis that filters and cools the air, and reduces noise.

Second, datacenters rely on dedicated power systems, which smaller businesses just can’t afford. The “downmarket” blades from HP and IBM, however, run on standard 110-volt lines and have the same three-pronged plugs you’ll find on a kitchen appliance.

Third, datacenters have lots of room. A small business has no space for racks, but a chassis filled with six or eight blades takes up no more space than a desktop PC.

Fourth, datacenters have dedicated IT support. Small businesses can’t afford that, either. Configuring small-business blades is relatively simple, though, and most customers get them preconfigured from a reseller that specializes in their industry. Either way, the blades should be up and running fairly quickly.

For now, HP and IBM are the only major vendors offering blades tailored for smaller customers. Between them, however, they account for about 75 percent of the blade market, so that may not matter. And Dell is rumored to be contemplating a move to this market, and other vendors could follow.

The Bottom Line: Why should the big boys have all the fun? Blades designed for smaller businesses let you get some of the datacenter capabilities that just weren’t possible before, without the headaches and costs of a traditional datacenter. Why not check them out?

Complete list of 2007 underreported stories:

1.  Java is becoming the new Cobol

2.  Sun Microsystems is back in the game

3.  Hackers take aim at Mac OS X

4.  There are some threats you can worry less about

5.  Companies may have found a way around H-1B visa limits

6.  Open source’s new commercial strategy

7.  End-to-end Ethernet finally arrives

8.  Blade servers arrive for the masses

9.  BI is dead; long live BI

10. Balance of power shifts to software buyers

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