While sales of blade servers have yet to take off in significant numbers, the technology has captured a growing following and provides a new focus for innovation in the hardware industry.
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Blade servers first caught the eye of the server world when RLX Technologies rolled out a system in 2001 that could fit more than 300 servers in a rack that would typically have housed 42 regular rack servers.
The major server vendors were slow to come up with their own blade designs and initially challenged the effectiveness of RLX's newfangled products. Two years later, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems have all launched blades of various shapes and sizes and have incorporated the systems into their overall server strategies.
"It blows me away to think that three years ago this month, we were sitting in a conference room with a pencil and some paper designing our first system," said Chris Hipp, founder and former chief technology officer at RLX, who is credited with developing some of the early ideas for blades. "Now, three years later, blades have their own conference, and the big guys in the industry are giving talks about how blades will change the world."
Blade servers have drawn the interest of vendors for several reasons. The thin design allows more computing power to be packed into a smaller space than typical 1U (1.75 inches) rack servers. A shared networking and power infrastructure helps cut down on the numbers of cables coming off of a rack. And the compact systems help cut costs by lessening the amount of space needed in a datacenter and by reducing power consumption.
The tight confines of a blade server chassis require server makers to pay special attention to cooling issues and how they set up their networking and storage infrastructure around the servers. At the show, Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM's xSeries servers, said he expects blade server designs from a company such as IBM that invests heavily in research and development to edge out more cost-conscious competitors like Dell.
"You need to overcome systems management issues and cooling. These are things that a company without R&D investments will not be able to enjoy," he said.
Even with its attention to design, IBM, like most of the major vendors, has not pushed as hard as RLX to cram hundreds of blades in a rack. Most vendors have come up with designs that save space compared to traditional rack servers, but not to the extent that RLX has. Its ability to cram so many servers into a rack stems in part from its use of low-power Transmeta processors in some of its blade servers, the company has said.