Blade to Order

By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2002-06-10

Blade to Order

Time may be money, but for Lance Braunstein, who is responsible for the care and feeding of the servers that run Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.s Morgan Stanley Online Web site, data center space and server manageability are just as important. Thats because as the number of Web, application and other servers needed to support Morgan Stanleys Web presence proliferates, so do space costs and management headaches.

Braunstein, Morgan Stanleys executive director, would like nothing better than to be able to put all those servers in a single box that could be centrally managed. Toward that end, Braunstein has begun evaluating new server consolidation options, including blade server and virtual server technologies. (See eWeek Labs analysis of server virtualization.) Hes beta testing Virtual Service and Virtual Rack processors from Inkra Networks Inc., of Fremont, Calif., and Inkra software that can allocate bandwidth, buffers and memory to applications, as needed, on one box.

"There is a huge advantage in the ability to consolidate functions on a common base infrastructure," said Braunstein, in Oakland, Calif.

While large, established financial services organizations such as Morgan Stanley arent ready yet to aggressively deploy blade servers or server virtualization, other Web-based companies such as The Gator Corp. and Centerpost Corp. are beginning to wield blade servers with gusto. Although IT managers at those companies said theyre already seeing the benefits, experts warn that enterprises should do plenty of internal testing before jumping on the blade server bandwagon. They should also be aware that the current generation of blade server hardware and software, while long on raw processing power, tends to be short on standard management software that can support robust scalability and availability.

Typically used for jobs that require plenty of raw power, such as front-end Web serving, blade servers are small servers built on cards and tied together with software that balances the workload among processing units. The systems, which typically use commodity processors such as Intel Corp.s Pentium III, are so densely powerful that one rack of blades equals the performance of several larger servers. In addition, because they consume less energy and take up far less data center space than traditional rack-mountable servers, blade servers can dramatically reduce computing costs.

Today, however, whats lacking in many of these products—and what will differentiate server vendors in the end—is systems management software specifically for blade servers, experts say. Traditional system management software is inadequate for managing the blade server environment, which lacks local administrator interfaces for keyboard, mouse and monitor. Although vendors such as IBM and Dell have announced they will bundle blade-server-specific management tools with their hardware, so far the software is not there to allow administrators, for example, to smoothly add new server blades to an existing production server, say experts. Smaller companies such as F5 Networks Inc., Jareva Technologies Inc. and Altiris Inc. are beginning to attack that problem. (See eWeek Labs take on software offerings from F5 and Jareva.)

For some Web-based enterprises, however, the need to work around management software shortcomings is more than offset by the cost advantages of blade servers.

At Gator, in Redwood City, Calif., the advantages of blade server technology were seen almost immediately last year when emergency connectivity problems at Gators co-location facility provider forced Gator officials to temporarily rely on the companys internal backup site, a small data center with space enough for just one server rack. Gators network operations manager, George Bonser, immediately deployed a chassis with server blades he was testing from RLX Technologies Inc., of The Woodlands, Texas. Bonser was able to move the entire Web site into his backup center.

Blade Use Expands

Blade Use Expands

More recently, Gator expanded its use of blade servers to reduce its co-location costs. As Gators business grew exponentially last year, the company began to max out the electrical power allotment it had purchased from its co-location provider. Rather than lease more co-located data center space, Bonser last year purchased seven chassis and 144 Transmeta Corp.-based server blades from RLX for his primary and backup data center to power Gators Internet presence. The savings have been significant. Bonser, who can put eight chassis on each rack, can now get 192 servers onto a rack in his co-location center, using one-tenth of the space he used to require and without violating heat and power limitations imposed by his co-location provider.

The lack of adequate blade server management software, however, means Bonser has had to come up with his own workarounds. RLX recently switched the operating system it supports, replacing the Debian GNU Linux distribution with Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux distribution. That created problems, because Red Hat had standardized on the Debian version of Linux.

To compensate, Bonser has engineered his own solution. He purchases his server blades with no operating systems installed. Then, when its time to add blades, Bonser uses a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server to assign IP addresses to the new blades. Bonser then boots from the network and installs enough of a standard build image to log in to the blade server and finish the installation process.

Now Bonser is working on a plan to expand his use of blade servers even further. He wants to use blades to enhance database performance, placing blade servers behind the load balancer used by his database servers.

Keeping Limits in Mind

Keeping Limits in Mind

Other IT managers, although optimistic about blade servers, arent yet as willing to move mission-critical applications that require scalability onto blade technologies. Craig Goren, president and chief technology officer at Centerpost, in Chicago, has deployed three HP ProLiant BL blade servers and uses the technology to power his Web services infrastructure. His company, which provides a Web-based service that allows clients such as UAL Corp. to communicate with customers via voice and data on wired and wireless hardware, can now install seven times more servers in its co-location space by using blade technology rather than rack-mounted servers. Goren estimated that he will save 50 percent off a similarly configured nonblade environment using the three chassis he has loaded with server blades.

Goren is cautious, though, about using blades to provide more than just raw CPU power to deliver I/O or computation performance. While he would like to run databases on blade technology, he said he will wait at least six to 12 months before considering the idea. Management software that can ensure reliability and scalability just isnt there yet, he said.

Its not surprising, then, that companies without pressing data center space limitations so far have little incentive to move to blade server technologies until the management software is ready. At Morgan Stanley, which operates its own data centers in Oakland and Cottonwood, Utah, Braunstein said he will look at some blade server hardware offerings from Sun when they are released later this year. But, he said, he is in no hurry to move blade servers into his production environment.

That doesnt mean, however, that once management software is in place, companies such as Morgan Stanley wont seriously consider blade servers. "The execution is going to require some attention, and some of the pieces need to be worked through," said Braunstein. "Holistically, though, I think blade technologies are the right approach."

Links to additional articles in this Special Report:
  • Review: Two Blades Cut Path to Manageability
  • Consider Virtualization Return
  • F5, Jareva Management Tools Rein in Blade Systems

  • Rocket Fuel