Blade to Order

Despite management software shortcomings, some see cost benefits to the new technology.

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.