Blades Continue to Grow, but Beware of Hype

A Gartner study shows that blade servers continue to be the fastest growing segment of the server market, which helps HP and IBM. However, proprietary blade architecture and the difficulty of developing I/O standards will continue to cause concerns for IT managers.

Blade servers will lead the server market in terms of growth in the next four to five years, but a lack of universal standards and the proprietary architecture used for blades are still drawbacks.

In a Gartner blade market study released July 31, the research firm's analysts believe while the importance and benefits of blades will continue to grow, there are also serious drawbacks to consider.

The downside to blades includes the proprietary architecture used by all the major vendors-Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems-that make the creation of a heterogeneous data center based on blade technology nearly impossible.

In addition, there is a lack of universal standards in the market. For example, blades lack a common interface, which means that vendors such as Cisco and Brocade have to create different SAN (storage area network) and network switches to work with the different chassis.

"When IT departments buy blades now, they have to make a strategic decision to align themselves with that particular vendor's vision of how blades should work," said John Enck, an analyst with Gartner.

While there are some serious drawbacks, blades remain the hottest part of the server market. Between 2007 and 2012, Gartner predicts blade server shipments will see a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent. In 2007, blades represented 10 percent of all worldwide server shipments, and in 2012 that number will increase to 20 percent.

If those five-year projections hold true, Enck points out that traditional rack-mounted servers would still represent about 60 percent of the total market.

Currently, HP and IBM dominate the blade market, and both companies combined control about 75 percent of the total worldwide shipments. One reason that blades have grown in popularity, Enck said, is that HP and IBM have put more marketing and sales muscle behind these systems in the past years than their more traditional rack-mount servers.

There are a host of changes coming into the blade market that Gartner predicts will start changing the ways IT thinks about blades and how it deploys these systems within a data center infrastructure. These changes, which will happen between 2010 and 2012, include blade server aggregation that will allow two individual blades to be logically joined, which will then create one logical server.

Other improvements include better I/O connections, including 10 Gigabit Ethernet and InfiniBand, and improved I/O controls. Gartner is also looking for vendors to increase the virtualization options with blades, including embedding the hypervisor into the hardware itself.

One serious improvement that might be three to five years away is chassis interconnections, which will enable shared resources and reduce some of the proprietary nature of the blade market.