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Egenera spans more iron with PAN Manager 6.0

Unified computing pioneer still kicking

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Egenera was one of the pioneers not only in blade computing, but also in what we have come to now call unified computing. And while the company, which was spawned from the IT bowels of banking bad boy Goldman Sachs, doesn't make as big a splash now as it did a few years back, it's business is growing again, three years and one economic meltdown after changing gears from peddling server hardware to pushing virtual server management tools.

With PAN Manager 6.0, the processor and I/O virtualization and management layer that is at the heart of Egenera's BladeFrame blade server platform and that has been supported on Dell's PowerEdge blade servers for the past three years, PAN Manager is no longer limited to managing the computing resources in a single chassis. With the 6.0 update, PAN Manager can take control of the virtualized resources across three chassis of PowerEdge M610 blade servers, provided a single pool of 384 cores using the quad-core Xeon 5500 or 576 cores using the six-core Xeon 5600s that plug into the same blades. PAN Manager 6.0 also supports 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches and 8 Gb/sec Fibre Channel switches out to storage area networks.

When implemented on Dell iron, the management software is called Dell PAN System 3.0, and according to Egenera, on the new Dell M610 blades, the software and hardware together provide five times the network uplink bandwidth, 5 times the converged network bandwidth, and twice the Fibre Channel bandwidth as PAN System 2.0 could support.

Dell and Egenera both sell PAN System on Dell iron, and according to Peter Manca, president and chief executive officer at Egenera, about 40 customers are running PAN System on Dell iron. The remaining 360 customers Egenera has are still running PAN Manager natively on BladeFrame iron. In total, Egenera has 1,600 installations (meaning separate licenses) of PAN Manager, and it is hoping to ramp up sales through Dell and to get some other server makers to OEM PAN Manager as Dell has done.

Ten years ago, the IT nerds from Goldman Sachs started Egenera because they were frustrated with the monolithic servers, storage, and networking that scale-out architectures had, and so they created the BladeFrame hardware and PAN Manager software (PAN is short for processor area network for shared computing pools, an analog to storage area networks for shared storage pools) to solve this problem.

Three years ago, after other server makers got their blade server acts together, Egenera started focusing on selling software on blade servers with converged fabrics. This converged networking for servers and storage was not available from any of the tier one vendors when Egenera was founded, which is why it built its own BladeFrame hardware, including virtualized processor nodes and switches and controlled by PAN Manager.

Although Egenera still has most of its customers on BladeFrame iron today - and the two-socket BladeFrame blades were just upgraded to support the six-core Xeon 5600s - the real future for the somewhat smaller company is in software. Manca would not provide specifics on revenues for the privately held company, but did say that sales of PAN Manager were 140 per cent higher than forecasts in the first quarter ended in March. Manca also hinted that other OEM deals are in the works.

It would not be surprising to see Super Micro, Acer, and Silicon Graphics, which all have aspirations in enterprise blade computing (as opposed to the HPC kind), get their own PAN System through OEM deals. Although the mystery for the past three years is simply why Dell or Fujitsu, which had a two-and-a-half year OEM deal with Egenera for BladeFrames worth $300m that ended in March 2008, hasn't just acquired Egenera.

Acer wants to be a server player in a big way, and Super Micro could use some software edge in the data center as could SGI. It seems unlikely that Oracle would use PAN System or buy Egenera, having just bought Virtual Iron and Sun Microsystems last year and having a slew of management and virtualization tools to mix and match. It would be very odd indeed if Hewlett-Packard or IBM licensed PAN System, but stranger things have happened. Especially if customers with heterogeneous blades are looking for a tool maker to play Switzerland. Systems management tools on blade chassis are a control point that server makers are loathe to give up on. But having open tools that span lots of different hardware, including pools of virtualized rack servers, might give Egenera a niche it can leverage.

Manca says that Egenera has not updated its BladeFrame blade servers to support the latest Opteron 6100 processors and has no plans to. The company last added new Opterons with the four-socket Opteron 8200 and two-socket 2200 processors. Ditto for the high-end four-socket Xeon 7400 blades, which will be the last Xeon MP iron from Egenera unless customers come banging on its door for Xeon 7500 blades.

The company has updated its two-socket blades to support the six-core Xeon 5600s, and it will be interesting to see if it does any engineering for the "Sandy Bridge" Xeons due in 2011. It's a fair guess that Egenera would like to be out of the hardware business as soon as is practical. But, then again, Manca says the BladeFrame hardware business is "strong but not high-growth." The PAN Manager software business on Dell and Fujitsu iron is growing quarter-on-quarter, and that is what has Egenera hopeful that a few more OEM deals can make it a player once again in unified computing.

Egenera has, in fact, already ported PAN Manager to other platforms and could, if it wanted to, launch support for other tier one blade servers. But Egenera only has 135 employees and has to try to work with server makers, all of whom have to compete against Cisco Systems and its Unified Computing System converged blade architecture.

"It doesn't make much sense to hire 50 sales guys and compete with everybody," says Manca. "We are much better off partnering with these guys and going after Cisco than we are trying to do it all on our own and have to compete with these guys and Cisco, too."

Egenera says that a 48-socket Dell M610 blade setup with 10 GE switches and running PAN System 3.0 (which is the Dell brand on PAN Manager 6.0) costs 30 per cent less than the equivalent Cisco UCS setup using 2.26 GHz processors and 16 GB of physical memory on the blades. ®

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