Dell Tackles Blade Management

Dell FlexAddress tries to compete against Hewlett-Packard's Virtual Connect.

Dell will try to expand the management capabilities of its new M-Series blades by cutting down on some of the complexity of tying virtual servers and storage together.

On July 1, Dell will officially begin selling what it calls Dell FlexAddress, which works with its M-Series blade chassis and ties the Fibre Channel WWN (World Wide Name) and the Ethernet and iSCSI MAC (Media Access Control) to the chassis slot instead of the traditional method of connecting to the blade hardware itself.

The Dell FlexAddress works with any number of enterprise switches, including hardware from Cisco and Brocade, and is managed by the Dell's Chassis Management Controller.

What technologies such as Dell's FlexAddress and Hewlett-Packard's Virtual Connect are trying to do is make management of I/O easier by simplifying LAN and SAN (storage area network) addressing, centralizing the management and allow IT administrators to add or swap blades with minimal disruption to the rest of the data center.

Where Dell is looking to separate itself from HP is the ability to work with a range of switches and the starting price. The starting price for FlexAddress is $499, although Dell requires that the BIOS, firmware, HBA and Ethernet controller firmware on an existing chassis must be upgraded to work with FlexAddress.

"Virtual Connect utilizes HP Ethernet and Fibre Channel modules while Dell's FlexAddress works with most any embedded switch or pass-through module," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, wrote in an e-mail. "As a result, businesses can use the I/O technologies they're used to instead of having to purchase [or] adopt proprietary switch modules."

The Dell FlexAddress works by installing an SD card within the Chassis Management Controller at the factory or within an existing chassis. The card contains a pool of 208 MAC and 64 WWN addresses. Once installed, the FlexAddress can configure and manage up to eight, 10U (17.5-inch) Dell M1000e chassis enclosures that contain up to 128 individual blades.

What Dell does not offer is HP's dominant share of the blade market. According to the latest IDC survey, the worldwide market for blades hit $1.2 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2008, with HP controlling 46.9 percent of the market followed by IBM's 30 percent share.

HP has also been making a number of improvements to its Virtual Connect technology and announced in November that it would add more management features that will allow IT administrators to create virtual interconnect fabrics within HP's C-Class blade enclosures and allow the IT department to manage 1,600 blades from a single console.

IBM also offers similar management features with its Open Fabric Manager.

While Dell may still be looking for its place in the blade market, it is preparing more products for the market.

Rick Becker, vice president of Solutions for Dell, said the company was planning to offers some of the features found within its four-socket PowerEdge R905 and two-socket PowerEdge R805 rack-mount servers in several new blade systems. These rack-mount servers use quad-core Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

Becker did not offer a specific release date for these new blade servers, but said Dell had already started previewing some of the features to certain customers.