From the August 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Unless you're one of those rare businesses with a bigger IT budget than you need, you'll want to take a look at blade servers for your next network expansion. Blades can save money and reduce the hours spent on network management. They could even be one of those products that allow entrepreneurs to find new ways to be productive.

The technology itself is fairly derivative: A blade is a server on an add-in card about 19 inches long and 1.75 inches thick. The card is a downsized motherboard containing processors powerful enough to support operating systems, utilities and caching. Blades plug in to a standard 3U chassis that can hold dozens of stacked blades and provide cooling and other subsystems to ensure uninterrupted operation.

Blade cabinets let you scale up your e-mail and other server applications, or beef up your LAN/WAN as your head count grows. At the very least, blades save on cables and other components that pile up when you add a tower or a rack-optimized server. That saves floor space and reduces points of failure.

The 64-bit question is, can they also reduce time spent on server management? Frankly, blades are so new, we don't know yet, says Jeffrey J. Hewitt, principal analyst for Gartner Inc.'s Computing Platform Group. Pioneered last year by manufacturers like RLX Technologies, blades are just starting to ship from such players as Dell, Hewlett-Packard/Compaq and IBM.

Everyone has a different take on blade hardware and management software. You won't be mixing brands in the same chassis anytime soon, says George Haff, an analyst for Illuminata. Will you be free to wield this tool the way you want, or will you have to change your work style to fit vendor-imposed limits?

Getting Small

During the go-go days of the Internet, servers proliferated faster than floor space and electrical outlets-and companies had to pay confiscatory electricity surcharges to run and cool them.

Traditional towers gave way to rack-optimized servers, basically uncovered computers stacked in a rack like pastry trays. Blades plug in to the same 3U chassis and 42U rack, but at a higher density and lower parts count. The cable count in Dell's PowerEdge 1655MC, for example, is 80 percent lower than Dell alternatives.

Blade flexibility also represents an open-ended opportunity for the entrepreneurial mind. Use them to segment your network into workgroup duchies or harness some together to attack large computational challenges. Data and applications are decoupled from processors, but more centralized to serve both Web pages and thin clients equally well.

The gift that would keep on giving is if blades actually made servers easier to operate. That will ultimately depend on subtle usability features that will or won't be part of blade hardware and software bundles. Blades must also coexist with competitors and legacy equipment in the future, says Hewitt. Gartner expects blade sales to top 1 million units per year by 2006, but still be only 14 percent of all server sales.

Hewitt considers the lack of an industry standard backplane for blade cabinets an inhibitor to wider deployment. You can still mix cabinets from different vendors in the same rack. But how committed are vendors to interoperability?

Software is Key

Blade management software isn't standardized either. HP/Compaq bundles Insight Manager with its Proliant BL10e, IBM includes Director with its eServer BladeCenter, and Dell has OpenManage for its PowerEdge 1655MC.

All are easy to use and time-tested on other server types, and will tell you everything about the configuration and operating parameters of their blades. Each will also let you do anything but plug in a blade remotely, including changing the image and mission of a blade if, say, another goes down.

Even though parts and protocols are pretty standard on Intel platforms, you should expect to use different programs to manage different hardware, says Haff. It's not big in principle-just a mouse gnawing away at productivity. Still, if yours is an Internet-related business, savings from blades may outweigh the bumps that come with new technology. If you don't have an immediate need for multiple servers in cramped spaces, you can stay behind the curve. But keep an eye on blades. Your competitors will.

Blade Servers
Want to whet your appetite for the right chassis and blade? Here's a sampling to get you started in your search.

COMPANY/PRODUCTENCLOSUREBLADESOFTWARESTREET PRICE*
DELL COMPUTER
Poweredge 1655mc
3u chassis holds six bladesTwo 1.2ghz Pentium IIIS, 2GB SDRAM, Two 73GB SCSI Drives, Gigabit EthernetOpenmanageAbout $3,500
HEWLETT-PAACKARD
Proliant BL10E
3u chassis holds 30 bladesLow-Voltage 700mhz Pentium II, 1GB SDRAM, one 30GB Drive, 10/100 EthernetInsight ManagerAbout $3,499
IBM
eServer Bladecenter
42u chassis holds 84 bladesTwo Xeon Processor, Error-Coding SDRAM, Two 40GB Drives, Gigabit Ethernet AvailableIBM DirectorN/A
RLX Technologies
RLX Server-Blade 8001
3u chassis holds 24 bladesLow-Voltage 800mhz Pentium III, 1GB SDRAM, Two 40GB DrivesNot IncludedAbout $5,000