Blade servers and convergence pick up steam

Blade servers are marching into the data center in increasing numbers -- often dragging converged networking with them

Last week, IDC released the latest version of its Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker. Above the fold, you'll find news that the server market is continuing to heat up in a very big way. For the first time in more than two years, all sectors of the server market have posted year-over-year growth in the same quarter (Q1 2011), representing aggregate growth of 12.1 percent to $11.9 billion. This indicates a significant loosening of the corporate purse strings as it relates to server infrastructure purchases.

However, there were several interesting observations below the fold that may signal a significant shift in the enterprise storage and network infrastructure spheres. Chief among them is the significant uptick in the x86-based blade market -- nearly doubling the revenue growth figures posted by the server market as a whole. In fact, over 20 percent of investments made in x86 server hardware went to blades.

With more than 50 percent of the blade server market, HP's c-Class blade offerings have remained very popular. However, readers who have always thought of Cisco as a networking company may be shocked to realize that increasing demand for Cisco's UCS blade platform has moved the company to third place with a tad less than 10 percent of the market share -- a fairly amazing feat given how little time UCS has been on the market. However, it should be noted that Cisco's introductory pricing on UCS has been fantastically aggressive, so it will be interesting to see if it can keep up this pace as time goes on.

Part and parcel to all but the smallest blade deployment is heavy use of network convergence. Buying a high-density blade chassis only to then equip it with a multitude of pass-through modules and do the network aggregation somewhere else rarely makes sense, either financially or from an operational management standpoint. The fewer external network ports you end up burning and the less hardware you need, the better. As a result, many organizations' first experience with network convergence, or maybe even 10Gbps networking, also happens to be when they bought their first blade chassis.

HP's solution has generally revolved around its Virtual Connect line of blade interconnect modules. Together with most G6 and G7 c-Class blades, these modules allow administrators to slice and dice dual 10Gbps blade downlinks into discreet virtual FlexNICs -- giving each blade up to 20Gbps of network bandwidth divvied up into as many as eight FlexNICs with their own bandwidth allocations and network configurations. All of that is possible, requiring only a pair of interconnects and no additional mezzanine cards, though more can be implemented if additional bandwidth is required.

The newest addition to the Virtual Connect line is the FlexFabric 10Gb/24 module, which allows both 10Gbps Ethernet and 8Gbps Fibre Channel to be aggregated through the same interconnect fabric -- essentially removing the need for dedicated Fibre Channel interconnects. Together with the FlexNICs present in earlier blade models, most G7 blades are able to support a pair of FCoE-based FlexHBAs that share the same dual 10Gbps pathways to the interconnects. This FCoE traffic can then be transitioned into a traditional Fibre Channel fabric through a collection of 10Gb Ethernet and 8Gb Fiber Channel uplinks on the interconnects.

While HP's approach has been winning it business for many years, Cisco's UCS entered the market at a much different point in the evolution of both blade hardware and convergence. HP's Virtual Connect, while impressive in its capabilities, had to be grafted onto an existing blade offering while still supporting everything that came before it. Unable to find a dance partner in the server manufacturing world, Cisco was forced to start with a blank sheet of paper -- and ended up gaining a significant edge in terms of design.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2