Quick Review of Blade Servers from IBM, HP and Dell

Blade Servers
A blade server is a small form-factor computer that has certain components removed from the typical computer or server case in order to decrease the size of the machine.  Often, these components include the power supply, network devices, and other miscellaneous peripheral connections.  Exactly what is removed is dependent upon the server manufacturer.  Removal does not affect functionality because they are included in a blade server chassis.

A blade server generally can be ordered full-height or half-height, depending on the manufacturer, capabilities, scalability, and future upgrade requirements required of the server.  The size chosen determines how many severs are able to fit into the chassis.  For example, a Dell PowerEdge m1000e or a HP BladeSystem c-Class 10U chassis can fit 16 half-height servers, and IBM’s BladeCenter H Type 8852 can fit 14 into a similarly dimensioned 10U enclosure. Note that both Dell and HP’s 10U enclosure are 17.5 inches in height, where the IBM unit is 15.75 inches.  Full height servers in the m1000e chassis would then reduce the available number to 8 servers per chassis.

Dell PowerEdge Blade Servers

Hardware Options
Dell offers many different hardware choices for their blade servers.  Available chipsets are either Intel or AMD.  Current socket choices in both half- and full-height M series blades are 2-Socket, with one lone exception: the M905, a 4-Socket AMD, dual or quad core full-height server.  All Intel processors offered are Xeon 5500 series, dual- or quad-core.  Prices for the two M710 Full-Height start at $1829, and the M610 Half-Height start at $1,129.  AMD versions begin with the two-socket, M605 Half-Height at $1,059 and range upwards to the four-socket M905 Full-Height at $5,3192,3.

No operating system is included with a PowerEdge Server at the base price. For an additional cost,  Dell will factory install most versions of MS Server 2003 or 2008, Red Hat Linux, and Novel SUSE Linux.  Additional supported systems include SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11, Sun Solaris, and VMware 3.0 or 3.5.  Dell offers several power configurations for their chassis, and various connectivity devices for networking.
Storage options include two hot-pluggable4 SAS (from 73GB to 300GB 10K RPM ) or SSD (25, 50, 100 GB) hard drives, as well as a 73GB or 146GB 15K SAS drives.  A single 73GB 10K SAS drive is included in the base configuration.  The stock controller, however, does not support RAID.

Available Connectivity
•Ethernet: Blade Ethernet Switches–up to 10Gbps5 managed or pass-through devices, as well as Cisco Catalyst Blade switches.
•Fibre Channel:  Up to 8Gbps3 throughput with Brocade switches and 4Gbps with an FC4 Pass-Through module.
•InfiniBand:  Two Mellanox InfiniBand switches are available, one DDR (5Gbps)and one QDR (10Gbps).

Processor and Memory Configurations
The M610 version of the Poweredge Blade Server line starts at $1129 with a single dual core E5504 (2 total cores) processor.  Available options are shown in the list below, taken directly from Dell’s site:
The stock processor supports 144GB of DDR3-800 memory. The M610 has 12 slots for memory, using 16GB UDIMMS would allow only 96GB per processor. Using a more modest 24GB (4x6GB) brings the price to $2,228.  The stock configuration includes 1GB (1x1GB) non-ECC memory.  Configuring the sever with a more aggressive X5570 allows Hyper-Threading support, Intel’s Turbo mode, and much higher throughput, at 6.4 GT/s (Giga-Transfers Per Second.)  Added cost is shown in the image above.

Power Availability
Depending on the customer’s power availability, Dell offers up to 6 (3 necessary and 3 for redundancy) PDU’s for their m1000e chassis.  The chassis also supports single- or three-phase power.  The most robust options are found in their 3-phase units, where the grid can be adjusted to distribute power evenly through all PDU’s yet maintain redundancy through the failure of up to 3 individual PDU’s.  Also notable is that the PSU’s in the servers are hot-swappable, and the chassis comes with jumper cords for this purpose.

Service Agreements and Warranties
All of the PowerEdge Blade Servers come with a standard 3-year hardware warranty, although the standard agreement only allows SATA drives the lesser of the warranty of the product purchased or 1-year (in the case of PowerEdge Blade Servers, the drive(s) would be limited to one year only.)  Basic hardware assessments are always done first over the phone, and a determination of the problem is handled accordingly.  In the basic warranty agreement, for example, Dell has many options of how they will repair your malfunctioning hardware.  Some parts are “CSR”, meaning Customer Service Replaceable, and they will ship you the part.  Some parts are Return and Repair, which are shipped ground freight once Dell receives the damaged part.  There are many options for SLA’s (Service Level Agreements), but the above is for the basic purchase of a server as listed on their website.  No On-Site service is included at those prices.

Hewlett Packard

Hardware Options
HP’s ProLiant Intel-based G6 server range also uses the Xeon platform, with 3400 or 5500 series processors.  The 3400 series Xeon platform is for single-processor four-core configurations, while the 5500 series supports up to 2 sockets, with 4 cores per socket.  The G6 design allows for 4 servers per node, with 4 nodes per chassis, similar to Dell’s offering as noted above.

In competition with the Dell M610, HP offers the BL460c half-height  blade server.  The server comes preconfigured with a single E5502 processor, SAS array controllers, a three year basic warranty, and 6GB of PC3-10600R memory (3x2GB sticks.) HP notes that this unit is preconfigured this way, and any additional modifications would result in separate shipping for those options.

The base server price, preconfigured is $2,701. This includes a storage controller similar to Dell’s M610, however no hard drives come with the base configuration.  Internal storage options available are similar to Dell’s, hot-pluggable SATA, SAS, or SAS SSD drives; sizes range from 72GB to 500GB depending on drive speed and type.
Options available through HP’s configuration pages are somewhat limited.  HP’s Insight management software and CAL’s for MS Windows Server line are available for purchase with a standard configuration.  No other software options are available through the HP website, they need to be ordered by speaking with an HP salesperson.

Available Connectivity
Switch and pass-through connections for 1GB, 10GB ethernet, 4GB or 8GB Fibre Channel, and HP’s quad rate InfiniBand Switch.

Power Availability
The HP c-7000 blade enclosure supports only 200V or 240V AC power, with up to 10 fans.  6 PDU’s are included as standard equipment.  The enclosure does have single- or three-phase capability. Although there are 6 PDU’s similar to Dell’s m1000e, there is only one  power bus in the c-7000, meaning a power problem on the bus could render all PDU’s inoperable.

Service Agreements and Warranty
There are many SLA’s available depending on need.  The blade servers do not come with on-site support as standard, although the c-7000 enclosure does come with a 3-year parts/labor/onsite warranty.

Virtual Connect
HP has a feature called Virtual Connect which provides automatic failover protection for blade servers by using a spare server and booting to a SAN.  This allows SA’s to change out failing blades requiring no downtime on the network.  Also, virtual connect allows for preconfiguration of all LAN NICS in the enclosure, as well as names for the SAN.  When new hardware is added later, these preconfigured NIC’s can be assigned remotely through software to the new hardware.  This saves on time and hardware because fewer switches and no cables are required to achieve the same performance of traditional rack or blade enclosures.


Hardware Cost and Options
IBM offers Intel Xeon 5500 series or AMD Opteron processors, similar to HP and Dell in their BladeCenter servers.  They also offer their Power line POWER6 processor in the J-series blades.

To maintain similarity between the servers,  IBM offers the HS22 line of blade servers with a single E5502 processor.  Stock configurations include one E5502, 6GB RAM, 16MB graphics, and two Gigabit ethernet NIC ports (single card).  There are 12 RAM slots total for memory, with a supported size of 8GB, bringing available memory to 96GB.  The included 6GB of RAM are 3x2GB (similar to HP’s stock configuration.)  No hard disks are included with the base price of $1,479.00.  Availability is “within 15 days” according to the build configuration on IBM’s site. Any additional reconfiguring of the server (adding hard drives, for example) will not be installed and will ship separately.
Hard disk options include SATA, SAS, and Small Form Factor (2.5”) 6Gbps SAS.  Sizes are typical of the other two manufacturers, ranging from 73 to 500GB.  IBM lists their hard disk as hot-swappable. RAID-0 and 1 are available out of the box on the HS22.

Available Connectivity
Connectivity includes two available I/O expansion units, supporting ethernet, fiber, virtual fiber, InfiniBand, and SAS.  Manufacturers for these expansion cards are Broadcom, Emulex, QLogic, and IBM.  IBM notes that they offer up to 20 I/O lanes per blade server in the H chassis compared to only 14 for both HP and Dell.

Power Availability
The H22 supports 2 PSU’s.  The BladeCenter H chassis supports up to four 2900W PDU’s at 208-240V.  Redundancy information could not be located for either the blades or the H chassis, however.

Service Agreements and Warranty
Included with the blade servers is a 3 year on-site warranty, although it does not specify what the initial response time is nor the turn-around on items needing repair.  IBM is the only one of the three manufacturers to give a web price on 24×7 4-hour support, which is an additional $1,569 for 3 years (per server.)  As is the case for most other hardware vendors, contacting them for server hardware would result in considerable savings when purchasing larger build-outs and longer term/faster service contracts. The warranty does not cover 3rd party hardware installed in the server, the case, “failure due to events beyond IBM’s control”, or service.  Most of the connectivity options are not IBM branded (fiber and ethernet), which is something to consider.

My preference, after looking through the various offerings, leans toward Dell.  The TCO and build out times for Dell appear to be significantly cheaper than the respective offerings from IBM and HP.

Necessary rack space is also smaller with Dell, saving valuable floor space, cooling, and cabling requirements.  Dell was the only manufacturer to install additional components at the time of order.  Both IBM and HP ship everything separately from the blade, leaving the installation to be done in-house.  If this were a total build-out, say of three fully populated racks and enclosures, the install time for Dell would take hours, while the additional configuration required from the competition would take days or weeks, depending on in-house manpower.

There are advantages, once installed, to HP or IBM in that they both offer virtualization for I/O connectivity.  This could reduce downtime in the future if any problems arise with a blade. In general, I do not feel that the cost increase over Dell justifies this benefit.  In highly critical systems, however, it may easily account for the additional cost.