Data Centers

Cheat Sheet: Blade servers and PCs

How to sharpen up enterprise tech...

So what's all this about blades? I thought they were what samurai warriors use to kill their enemies...
That's not entirely wrong but the term 'blade' can also refer to a kind of tech that's becoming increasingly popular in enterprise IT.

Blades are essentially standardised components you can plug straight into a computer system or network.

Each blade is a bundle of hardware packaged onto a single flat unit that can be quickly slotted into and removed from a computer rack.

Today I'm here to discuss two types: blade servers and PCs.

So what's the difference between blade servers and blade PCs?
Let's start with server blades. Server blades are generally self-contained high-density mini computers (containing processors, storage and memory) that slot into a server rack, often as part of a data centre.

The rack provides power, cooling and networking while the blade provides the computers on the network (the clients) with the services they need.

There are also diskless blades - servers with no hard drives - on which applications are run but not stored.

This means applications are not tied to specific hardware or platform and the blades are interchangeable.

OK - now what's a PC blade?
PC blades are essentially the hardware usually located in a PC tower (CPU, memory and hard disk) but fitted onto a blade that slots into a rack-mounted system.

This means all the user would have at their desk is a port that connects to the blade, a keyboard, monitor and mouse - the processor and memory which would usually be in a tower under the desk are instead tucked away in the server room and do their thing from afar.

Pretty neat I suppose. But what's the fuss about?
For a start, blade PCs are much more secure than individual PC towers scattered around the office. With the hardware tucked away in a server room, the IT staff can keep a close watch on it - and dubious characters aren't able to just walk up to PCs, stick in a USB memory stick and steal data, for instance.

Blade servers are also considered more secure in the event of a system failure, as the data is stored elsewhere.

Sounds good. What else?
Server blades allow more processing power to be squeezed into a server room because they are rack-mounted and so take up little square footage - this is a big boon for businesses which need to process large quantities of data.

Blade PCs save on space in the office too by reducing the clutter that normal workstations create. They also reduce the office temperature as the heat produced by the blades is restricted to the computer room. This can mean lower cooling bills and a more comfortable working environment.

Is there more?
Both kinds of blades make IT systems easier to manage as the hardware is located in one place and problems can be easily isolated and solved. It also makes software and hardware upgrades easy - no need to trek around the office from system to system. This frees up time and resources for dealing with other issues.

Some companies already using blades say they provide a rapid return on investment and have the potential to save on maintenance costs.

There must be a downside, though...
Of course. At a recent blade launch event, IDC analyst Jin-Chui Kim said the main problem he could see with blades is the unproven reliability of systems in the long term. Although they have been successful so far, they could cause problems in the future.

Also, blades from different vendors are not always compatible. But increased standardisation is expected over the next few years, which may improve this.

A major challenge has been to integrate blades with advanced storage systems - this is an ongoing issue.

Who's going to be using them?
As cool as they sound, they're not for everyone. Blades are most beneficial for businesses requiring a lot of computing power. This includes financial traders who require huge amounts of processing muscle to cope with the vast amount of data they deal with day to day.

Other potential users could be those that create large amounts of digital content such as movie and animation companies.

Most other businesses just wouldn't take advantage of blades' capabilities so the investment wouldn't be worth it.

So who is using them already?
As we mentioned, blades are big in financial services. A couple of examples: Lloyds TSB has been using HP blade workstations in its new trading offices since last summer.

Traders at Lloyd TSB often need to use four or more systems. Using blades means they can remove the towers and just house the monitors at their desks. This has reduced clutter and lowered the office temperature.

Before the blade PC rollout it was a sweltering 30 degrees centigrade and the traders had to wear shorts at work.

Similarly, the Anglo-Dutch bank Insinger De Beaufort started to use blade PCs as early as June 2005 to boost security and reduce time wasted in the event of a hardware glitch.

Do you think blades are really going to catch on then?
It looks like it. A number of big businesses have already brought them in and the vendors are eager to sell them. Dell, HP, IBM and Sun Microsystems are all pushing blades like there's no tomorrow.

I suppose you could say companies can use blades to slay office clutter, insecure systems and maintenance headaches...
You're very funny. Yeah something like that...

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