IBM promises to boost blade servers and break HP's spirit
IBM's blade server plans for 2006 include a new Infiniband-boosted chassis, improved management software and better iSCSI support. Oh yeah, IBM would like to beat HP to a pulp as well.
Sometime in 2006, IBM will roll out a second blade chassis meant to complement the existing BladeCenter enclosure. This product should address a pressing concern held by customers for better I/O and bandwidth performance on certain applications. Old and new blade servers will be able to slot into either the standard BladeCenter chassis or the new one, said Doug Balog, IBM's VP in charge of blade servers, during an interview.
Balog declined to say who IBM is teaming with on the 4x Infiniband chassis but did confirm that the company "has been working with partners around the networking part of it." IBM currently resells Cisco's line of Infiniband-based server switch gear that was acquired from Topspin.
Also in 2006, IBM will outfit blades with Intel's dual-core Dempsey chip. It has decided against putting Paxville - aka Hot Carl - into Xeon blades for the moment, which is probably a safety measure for customers. In the first half of 2006, customers will also find dual-core PowerPC 970MP-based blades.
On the software front, IBM will move away from its proprietary manager module toward a "standards-based" set of code that has improved failure detection and logging tools. In addition, IBM expects that customers will be able to use an iSCSI software initiator in 2006. IBM has done the initial work on this code and believes that Microsoft and Linux makers will support the software in their OSes.
IBM has been hammering away at this blade server thing for awhile and has one of the broadest portfolios with Power, Opteron and Xeon systems that plug into the BladeCenter chassis. Overall, the blade market should hit $2bn in 2005 and stretch to $3bn in 2006, according to notorious forecaster IDC. IBM owns about 40 per cent of the blade market with HP taking close to 35 per cent. Some start-ups and laggards split the rest of the sales.
It's been a bit comical to see Sun Microsystems and Dell flounder on either side of IBM and HP, missing out on this growing market. Sun pulled its blade server line this year, leaving customers with an end-of-lifed chassis. It's expected to roll out Opteron-based systems next year. Similarly, Dell danced on the edges of the blade market and then revitalized its efforts last year with a product that has sold fairly well.
IBM claims that Dell lacks the technical expertise needed to assist customers with complex blade setups. "Dell doesn't have the support structure to handle issues here. It is not a space they do well in," Balog said.
And Sun? Well Sun not selling blade servers certainly makes competing against the R&D and support-savvy rival pretty easy.
The muted presence of Dell and Sun leaves IBM and HP with plenty of room to squabble, and they do so very vocally. After all, blade sales present a great high-margin opportunity for the vendors, making them prized items.
Happy to knife fight
IBM and HP have long squawked about the relative merits and problems of each others' blade systems. IBM, for example, likes to say that it can fit 14 servers in its chassis as compared to just 8 servers from HP. These numbers, however, are fluid since HP can now pack up to 16 of its BL30 or BL35p systems into a 6U chassis. IBM is right though in that HP can only fit 8 of its ProLiant BL20 or BL25p systems in a chassis.
Either way, HP has a 6U chassis compared to IBM's 7U chassis. But, of course, HP could use the extra room in a rack since it needs space for a 3U power enclosure, while IBM doesn't.
IBM also boasts that it has better Fibre Channel support, better cooling and more redundant components than HP. As you can tell though, such claims need to be checked out and compared with your needs.
If you think the configuration comparisons are difficult, then you should try dealing with the marketing teams behind the products.
HP, for example, sent reporters a note today saying,
"IBM is expected to announce a new, larger 9U chassis that will accommodate up to 14 blades to take the heat off their power and cooling problems. Although BladeCenter 2 is 2U bigger than the existing chassis, the number of blades supported will not increase, and, instead, the additional real estate has likely been allocated to badly needed changes to power and cooling."
If this is true, it's news to us and IBM as well. An IBM spokeswoman vehemently denied that any such new blade chassis is set to be announced or to ship or to be developed.
To its credit, HP was right about one thing. IBM's blade servers do have a somewhat poor reputation for handling heat. Many readers have complained about failures due to heat issues, although IBM states such issues have more to do with older data centers than its products.
"It comes down to the age of the data center," Balog said, adding that IBM's blades are 40 per cent more power efficient than HP's systems.
All of this confrontation can leave customers in a precarious position. How can you really trust the sales pitch from either vendor?
IBM has tried to assuage some of these fears by working with Intel and other partners to standardize blade servers. IBM has released its blade server specifications to third parties willing to make appliances or even general purpose systems built around its architecture.
El Reg challenged Balog on this program saying it's a bit of a fanciful dream to think that any amount of IBM success would one day push Dell, HP or Sun to adopt its architecture. Can brute force really win?
"You describe it as brute force. I describe it as open adoption," Balog said. "We have taken the approach of opening it up to the industry. If it continues to grow, it will be tough for HP to pass up."
We blushed at that last comment.
In total, however, there's little question that IBM is doing all it can to promote blades and understandably so. The design of the systems with shared networking and power management makes it possible to create a type of min-data center in a box. This lets IBM and others sell sophisticated software packages to customers, ship higher priced servers and tie users into a proprietary platform.
Balog puts this in more polite terms.
"In our case, we view it as a value play," Balog said. "In the rack space, it's really just a procurement exercise. With blades, we help customers solve problems and put a lot of integration and value into the products. It is about what IBM can bring to its customers." ®