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A Blade Server Primer

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Network management specialist Stephen Morris discusses the emerging area of blade servers. This key data center technology has important implications for hard-pressed IT managers.
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As demands placed on data centers grow, blade servers provide a convenient means of massively extending the device density. As with any technology, you gain in one way and lose in another; the increased density places a greater burden on the human operator. It's entirely possible that the problems of blade management may usher in the "next big thing" in the form of autonomic computing. Whether or not this happens, the key element that will assure the success of blade technology is the management software.

More Network Computing, Please!

The 1980s saw massive deployment of PC technology outside the data center. In the 1990s, networking came to the fore as PC technology was networked and conjoined with the Internet. The merits of the data center also became apparent during this time, as organizations began to centralize application management, content, web hosting, storage, and databases. Software license tracking, security updates, and overall network management became data center responsibilities. Not surprisingly, the role of data center manager is one likely to have 100% employability over the next five years!

Given the enlarged role of the data center, it's increasingly viewed as a service platform accessed by machines both inside and outside the corporate firewall. As a service platform, however, the data center can also be a single point of failure, which has led to widespread over-provisioning of resources. For example, online brokerages must dimension their systems for a given transaction load X; some actually provision resources for handling three times X. Providing for more than the expected load is a significant waste of resources. Another example is Yahoo!'s recent upgrading of its free mail service to provide 100MB of storage per user. (Although the latter was prompted by competition, rather than operational requirements.)

With data center space and power at a premium, it's not surprising that many IT managers are interested in outsourcing various tasks such as security and IP VPNs to their service providers. There are financial reasons for this setup as well, now that the estimated cost of co-location floor space averages around $1,000 per rack.

This situation runs parallel with corporate deployment of increasingly resource-hungry applications employing real-time technologies, such as voice-, video-, and data-over-IP. This additional burden on the data center necessitates a more dense resource base—vast amounts of storage, memory, and processing power. This never-ending cycle of consumption pushes more and more hardware into the data center.

Things are similarly challenging on the service provider side of the fence! Internet data centers must increasingly scale upward and provide high levels of security, availability, and reliability. Corporate customers also require stringent service-level agreements with financial penalties for noncompliance.

Blade servers may soon play a big role in meeting the ever-growing demand for computing and data transport resources. Let's take a look at some of the characteristics of this important new technology.

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