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Comdex 2001: Server giants flash their blades

Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have used the Comdex trade show to outline its plans for high-density server blade products.

Compaq's QuickBlade server blade initiative aims to bring server blade architecture out into the application server layer and possibly the database, said Matthew Carreras, manager of Compaq's mainstream server marketing group.

Early next year, Compaq expects to launch its single-processor QuickBlade server modules, which can house "hundreds of server blades" within a standard rack and deliver power savings of about 25% over standard 1.75" rackable servers, Carreras said.

Running Intel's low-power Pentium III "Tualatin" processor, Compaq's one-way server blades can deliver performance equal to the company's DL360 1.75" servers, while saving space and power.

Breaking the mould of server blades as front-end-only servers, Compaq will soon deliver two- and four-way server blades through the QuickBlade programme. These Intel Xeon processor-based server blades will take the architecture to the application server layer for the first time.

The two- and four-way QuickBlade systems will deliver application server performance while still getting the dense form factor and manageability associated with server blades, according to Compaq.

The company is also looking to implement server blade-type architectures in database and other heavy computing hardware designs, Carreras said.

IBM is targeting server blade developments from both the hardware and the software angle, according to Brendan Paget, the worldwide marketing manager for IBM's xSeries server group.

Like Compaq, IBM plans to apply server blade architecture all the way to the database. IBM is well into the development of server blades that house a "totally self-contained computer" on a single blade, Paget said.

Early next year, IBM will also begin to offer what Paget called "virtual blades", where a server blade system could be partitioned internally to not only have separate, hot-swappable hardware components, but also virtual software partitions that could be re-allocated or fail-over on the fly.

Paget said companies such as VMWare, also at Comdex, "have some very interesting products" that allow for such virtual blades. He added that IBM was looking at deploying such technology on its future server blades.

HP is expected to enter the server blade market within weeks. Officials from the company previously announced that HP's "Powerbar" server blades would debut in the fourth quarter of this year. Powerbar server blades will use both HP's own PA-Risc processors, as well as chips from Intel.

Although each of the server blades from Compaq, IBM, HP and others are similar from the front - modular and removable from a backplane that provides cabling and power - the real battle in the server blade market will take place from the rear, said John Enck, senior research director at analysts Gartner Group.

The market would not gain full momentum until companies such as Compaq, IBM and HP agree an interconnectability standard that allow customers to swap one company's server blade with another, he said.

"We are going to see bigger blades," Enck said. "I've seen eight-way prototypes; the technology is coming. The killer point of blades is that there is no standard for what the blade interface and what the chassis is. Every vendor is different. So there is going to be a big war over standards in the next 18 months.

"Some vendors are saying Infiniband [should be the standard]. Others are saying PCI," Enck said. "HP is trying to lead the cause and promote the use of the PCI standard for the backplane interconnect. That would be a great starting point, but any point is a great starting point when trying to define a standard."

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