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Blade server systems - back to the old school?

Who is going to run the integrated blade system show?

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Comment What do you call a large and integrated piece of hardware and software that runs hundreds of virtual machines running Linux? That's easy, it's an IBM mainframe. But hang on, it could be a blade server system running VMware. What's the difference?

Interestingly, both systems look like big racks with lots of shelves. The mainframe is more integrated and has networking channel and storage stuff built in. With a blade server system, the vendors - Dell, HP and IBM mainly - are adding that stuff as well. Are we seeing a return to the monolithic computer, the big iron idea, but built from blade lego blocks rather than from some other set of components?

We're seeing a distinct centralising trend in large data centres with a latent desire being recognised by customers eager to reduce data centre kit provisioning and operating complexity and vendors eager to extend their influence and product stacks. We could imagine, readily, HP offering an integrated blade system with bladed servers running ESX, ProCurve switches and EVA storage.

We could also imagine Dell doing the same with bladed Dell servers, Equalogic storage blades and the OEM'd switches Dell ships. How about IBM? We could imagine the same, assuming a market positioning problem with its mainframes can be sorted out.

Let's call these three the Blade Runners, the suppliers of potential integrated and bladed servers + networking + storage racks.

If these imaginings are real then that betokens a change in IT purchasing practise. A data centre bought servers, networking, storage and applications separately. If the data centre goes the integrated Blade Runner route then it will buy the servers, the networking and the storage from one vendor. That means that pure play server, networking and storage vendors will be at a disadvantage, unless they have an OEM supply deal with an integrated server+networking+storage supplier, meaning, for now, Dell, HP and IBM.

Choices

For the large server, networking and storage vendors this means that they have three choices: they have to get involved with Blade Runner suppliers; they have to become a Blade Runner type supplier; or they have to forgo this market opportunity.

There is only one large pure play storage vendor, stretching the definition, that could conceivably join Dell, HP and IBM as an integrated blade system supplier, and that is EMC. It already has two major components in the shape of VMware and storage. But, even for that professional company acquirer Joe Tucci, the acquisition requirements to build EMC into an integrated blade system supplier might be too much, and a joint-venture or partnership deal might be better.

For companies such as NetApp and HDS, entry into this developing integrated blade system supplier market looks to be impossible on a DIY basis. Partnership or OEM supply beckons. What about 3PAR, Compellent, Pillar, Nexsan, Copan, Xiotech, etc, etc? They're locked out, too small to get the entry pass to this big boys' game.

What about networking companies? Rumours are swirling around Cisco and servers, and its Nexus and MDS switches already provide access to SAN storage but not the storage itself. How about Brocade? It has the storage networking switches and directors and it has its DCX data centre switch product line. What's the endgame here? Is it plotting a road ahead that includes server blades in the DCX and Microsoft's Hyper-V as a counterbalance to a potential Cisco/VMware integrated blade system and an HP ProLiant/ProCurve/EVA-type blade system?

Microsoft, incidentally, can only play here as a server O/S and hypervisor supplier. If it wants to do more then it has to have a significant hardware stake in the server, networking and/or storage area, and that means transforming itself.

Where does that leave Juniper and Riverbed and Blade Network Technologies as far as this data centre integrated blade system market is concerned? Out in the cold, sadly, and obvious natural integrated blade system dance partners for the 3PARs, Compellents, Pillars and other storage vendors if they want to play in this data centre sandpit?

And Sun? It has the servers, the storage and the networking and the software and the technical smarts. Lastly there is Verari. It could be a neat partner for storage and networking suppliers wanting to enter this game.

So there are six potential Blade Runners, suppliers of integrated, bladed and virtualised and reinvented big iron for data centres, and these are, alphabetically, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Sun and Verari. Brocade and EMC are on the could-be-candidates list.

If this scenario is true then it presents a massive strategic dilemma for IT suppliers out in the cold. How big and how long-lived is this market going to be, and can they afford not to be part of it? Where do they find the pieces of the puzzle they are missing? An integrated, bladed data centre system combining servers, networking and storage, and meeting sustained and large market demand could represent a truly frightening force for IT industry supplier consolidation. ®

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