Blades helped Athens State University build a leaner, cleaner data center, says Gary McCullors.

Sep 30 2010

How Blades Took Over the Server Market

Colleges can run more apps and gain major cost savings by pairing virtualization and blade servers.

Colleges can run more apps and gain major cost savings by pairing virtualization and blade servers.

One Saturday afternoon, the air conditioner in Athens State University's data center gave out. By Sunday, a security guard passing by couldn't even put his hand on the door's glass. The temperature had climbed so high that it boiled the fish in an onsite aquarium.

The culprit was the maxed-out servers cluttering the room. They were sucking up the 200 amps of power available and just about every inch of space, according to IT Director Gary McCullors. To add more services, the Athens, Ala., university would have needed to build a new data center or dig trenches to run lines for a new power grid, neither of which were viable options.

"We had just hit the limit on power and space, and we needed to find a better solution," says McCullors. He had heard peers sing the praises of virtualization, and he was ready to try it. But he didn't stop there. He purchased an IBM BladeCenter H chassis and began virtualizing servers on top of 12 blades. The result: The servers now handle 50 percent more applications and manage power 50 percent more efficiently – and the air conditioner no longer needs to run constantly, adds McCullors.

Blades account for only about 15 to 20 percent of the server market, but they're catching on quickly, according to Richard Fichera, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. The reasons are clear: Users insist they're easier to manage, they have a smaller footprint, and they require far less in terms of power, cooling and cabling.

Blades can help institutions avoid "the $5 million server" – the one that forces the IT department to invest in a new data center, says Fichera. "If you cut your power by 20 percent, you have in effect said you can do 20 percent more workload for the same power budget, so you've pushed off the huge capital expense of a new data center."

Athens State cut its rack-mounted physical servers from 30 to six and added the single BladeCenter with 12 blades, four of which are clustered for hardware failover. Three of the blades host 24 virtual servers, and one physical server hosts another three. The result is a leaner, cleaner data center.

And more reliable, says Bud Gifford, network administrator and systems engineer, because all single points of failure are eliminated. Plus, the recovery time is very efficient, he adds.

"Bud just goes out there, does a right click, restore, and it's back," McCullors says. "He wants to virtualize everything here."

One Size Fits All

Unlike Athens State, Bryant University wasn't crammed into a tight data center. Instead, its servers were sprawled across its Smithfield, R.I., campus. Many departments hosted their own servers, which were largely underutilized, and there were three data centers in different buildings.

In 2004, the IT team started to clean up shop. Art Gloster, vice president for information services, and Richard Siedzik, director of computer and telecommunication services, began virtualizing servers and purchased their first blades soon thereafter. Then, in 2007, Bryant opened its new data center, and the campus's scattered servers came together in one room.

Bryant chose IBM's scalable modular data center with APC's InfraStruXure architecture and scaled back from more than 80 servers to fewer than 50 while adding more applications to the infrastructure.

"We decided upon blades because of the efficiency they provided, the space savings, the umbrella platform for managing them and the flexibility we have moving virtual servers across blade servers to achieve better load balancing," says Siedzik. "We're in a much smaller footprint, but we have greater IT capacity."

The Big Picture

Blades can work for IT shops of all shapes and sizes, but Forrester's Fichera says they're ideal for those doing major data center refreshes. A blade virtualization configuration is also a natural fit for big projects, such as those at cluster-computing research centers, says Fichera.

That's why it's being used at the iPlant Collaborative at the University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute. The mission of the iPlant Collaborative, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is to address "Grand Challenges" in plant sciences, projects that are so large that no one group could tackle them alone. Plant biologists, computer scientists and engineers around the country work to solve challenges such as developing a botanical "tree of life" – in essence, a phylogenetic tree that would reveal the evolutionary relationships among all plants known to science.

Edwin Skidmore of the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona says HP blades let his group dynamically grow a cloud and virtualization layer.

Photo Credit: Steve Craft

The project requires researchers to work with massive data sets, which is why the iPlant partners are creating a cyberinfrastructure that consists of computing, storage, networking and software resources. Virtualization and cloud computing are core infrastructure components, explains Edwin Skidmore, systems and integrated services manager at iPlant's University of Arizona facility in Tucson.

The iPlant Collaborative uses HP's BladeCenter c7000 with 16 blades to run virtualization clusters managed by Citrix XenServer Enterprise software. By using the HP blades, the project can easily grow its cloud and virtualization layer dynamically, and it can configure hardware as needed.

It was fall 2009 when the idea of blades first came up. The team at iPlant was purchasing so many rack servers that its CDW•G representative suggested blades, explaining that they're easy to install and administer. It was a great idea, Skidmore says. The implementation was easy and wiring was simple, he says. The administrator interface is also easy to use, offering a visual representation of the blade chassis that one can click on to drill down through the system, adds Skidmore.

Money Talks

Chris Rhoda, vice president for information services and CIO at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine, had plenty of reasons to move to blade servers: a crowded server room, heating and power challenges, and a new virtualization initiative. "But basically," he says, "it came down to finances."

Thomas College was due to swap out about a half-dozen servers last summer, and Rhoda realized he could get an enclosure, blades and a much larger UPS for about the same price as adding more rack-mounted servers. When he considered how much less heat they generated and the fact that he would have to power only one blade chassis as opposed to separate servers, "it just really made sense to us," he says.


The percentage of power consumed by non-IT equipment in a data center, including cooling, fans, pumps and UPS systems

Source: Gartner

The move to blades and virtualization let Rhoda grow his data center, which he couldn't do before. Thomas College used to have 15 rack-mounted servers, and it didn't have the space or energy to add more, says Rhoda. This summer, Thomas College finished replacing all its physical servers with 11 blades hosting about 30 virtual servers.

"We're adding systems all over the place," Rhoda says.

5 Blade Tips from the Pros

  • Do your research. Ask members of user groups if you can spend time at their facilities to gain experience with blades and virtualization, says Gary McCullors of Athens State University.
  • Factor in the need for specialized cooling. Blade servers are tightly confined, and old buildings with legacy data centers aren't always equipped to handle their heat density, warns Richard Siedzik of Bryant University. Bryant uses APC's InRow Cooling system, which couples small cooling units with equipment right in their rows. Placing cooling directly in line with the heat source improves efficiencies and cuts costs.
  • Pay attention to how you manage your servers. Will you need to switch to a new server-management system or will your existing tools work with blade servers? The management tools available for blades can produce the highest ongoing operational savings, says Forrester analyst Richard Fichera.
  • Decide if virtualization is in the picture. The way you configure and manage your blade servers differs depending on whether you plan to run virtual servers on them, adds Fichera. Decide if you want to virtualize before implementing blade servers, so you can set them up for maximum efficiency.
  • Look at the entire lifecycle cost. Chris Rhoda of Thomas College says you might take a financial hit the first year, but factor in the costs – power, cooling, the blades themselves – over three years.
<p>Tamara Reynolds</p>

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