Dell Blade Servers: Making Better Connections

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

Dell's big draw: good prices for its blades, according to customers.

While customers generally agree that Dell's PowerEdge blade server products are flexible, with cost-effective pricing, some would like to see the servers provide more connectivity options to their company's networks.

For Jack Wilson, Dell's pricing was a plus. In the summer of 2005, the enterprise architect with Amerisure Mutual Insurance in Farmington Hills, Mich., looked to blades to house the company's Web-enabled policy and claims systems. At that time, Wilson says, he bought 10 blades at approximately $8,000 each—about $1,000 less than products from Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

For Alliance Atlantis, the Toronto broadcasting and production company, availability of processors was the key. Jeff Stein, manager of systems infrastructure, says that when he was ready to order blade servers for the first time in November 2005, he would have had to wait six to eight weeks for IBM blades with dual-core processors, while Dell could deliver in seven to 10 days. (IBM confirmed that time line, saying it did not have dual-core chips at the time. Big Blue says it ordered low-powered dual-core chips shortly after Stein's request.)

Dell's customers aren't the only ones reaping the rewards. The Round Rock, Texas, company's Servers and Networking Group, which includes the PowerEdge blades, has accounted for 10% of Dell's total revenue in each of the last three years. The group's revenue rose to $5.4 billion in fiscal 2006 from $4.9 billion the previous year.

If they could change one thing, some Dell blade customers would like to see the devices have more Ethernet and Fibre Channel connections available for storage-area networks.

Karl Ehr, manager of information-technology operations for Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says Dell's 1655 chassis only has two physical switches, meaning it can connect a blade to only two networks. But Ehr operates servers out of four different networks, so he needed more connectivity. His team ended up grouping different hosts together, and pointing some chassis toward two networks and others to two other networks.

Karl Schultz, manager of high-performance computing at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin, ordered via Dell a pass-through accessory—a device that sends traffic from the blade through a separate networking router —made by Topspin Communications, a switch maker acquired by Cisco Systems in 2005. The pass-through has 10 ports, which Schultz says gives each of the 10 blades in an enclosure its own Gigabit Ethernet connection. He says the built-in switch had six ports, meaning 10 blades shared six Ethernet connections.

Product manager Mike Roberts says Dell intends to increase the number of connection ports in future upgrades, but he cautions blade customers to limit their expectations: "Because of the form factor," he says, "blades will never have the expansion capabilities that monolithic servers do."

Another Dell blade customer, Darrin Hyrup, senior director of operations for video game developer EA Mythic, was unhappy when Dell switched to 2.5-inch drives in the 1955 series of blades.

Hyrup has stockpiled almost 60 spare 3.5-inch drives, the standard size for the 1855 blades, to back up production of Mythic's next release, "Warhammer." The larger drives were compatible with his non-blade Dell servers, so he could move them across different machines when needed.

Dell's Roberts believes the 3.5-inch drives will survive in bigger servers but will be phased out completely from blades in 2008. (The smaller drives are also found in the newest blades from Hewlett-Packard and IBM.)

To shore up his cache, Hyrup says he could end up spending north of $20,000: "That's just a cost we'll have to eat to make sure we have the [backup] capability."

Dell: At A Glance

1 Dell Way / Round Rock, Tx 78682 / (512) 728-7800 / Www.Dell.Com

Ticker: Dell (Nyse)

Employees: 69,700

SVP, Commercial Business Group

PowerEdge 1955, Dell's newest blade release, features dual-core Intel Xeon processors; 60 blades can fit into a 19-inch rack, which typically fits 42 rack-mount servers.
Reference Checks

Mgr., Systems Infrastructure

Amerisure Mutual Insurance
Jack Wilson
Enterprise Architect

EA Mythic
Darrin Hyrup
Sr. Dir., Operations

Golden Gate University
Karl Ehr
Mgr., I.T. Operations

Houghton International
Clarke Thomas
Chief Technologist

Texas Advanced Computing Center
Karl Schultz
Mgr., High-Performance Computing


Net income$762M$3.57B$3.04B
R&D spending$129M$463M$463M

* Fiscal year ends Feb. 3
FYTD represents first three months ended May 5, 2006

This article was originally published on 2006-09-07
Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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