IBM Blade Servers: Up and Running

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

IBM held 41.9% of the blade server market share in 2005. Customers explain why.

IBM reported more blade server sales than any other vendor in 2005. With a worldwide market share of 41.9%, IBM was 11 percentage points ahead of Hewlett-Packard, according to IDC.

What's to thank for the company's high rank? Most customers anecdotally point to the reliability of Big Blue's BladeCenter, a system of thin server boards and an enclosure with a shared switch and power and network cables.

IBM's Systems and Technology Group accounted for $20.98 billion in revenue in 2005, a 22% drop from the previous year, when it netted $30.71 billion. But revenue for the xSeries line, which includes both BladeCenter products and traditional x86 servers, jumped 6% in 2005 from the previous year.

Jeff Pelot, chief technology officer at Denver Health Hospital, a nonprofit, 598-bed institution, says IBM blades have been "incredibly reliable."

In March 2005, Pelot and his team deployed a BladeCenter chassis with 14 blades to conserve data center space, and ran Microsoft Virtual Server, a software tool that can create multiple servers on Windows operating systems. This gave them 30 extra virtual servers, or partitioned servers run on the boxes and managed on a Web interface.

Since then, Pelot says the chassis has performed at 100% uptime, and only one physical server has failed. "It's just a solid offering," he says.

In May 2004, Randall-Reilly Publishing, a Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based publisher of magazines and Web sites, had what Karl Wiggins, manager of technical services, describes as "major" problems with e-mail.

Wiggins says day-long outages were common due to failures in a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) controller in one of two Dell standalone servers on which the publisher ran its Exchange environment. He admits, too, that the company didn't enforce limits on individual mailboxes, which added to the problems.

Wiggins replaced the standalone boxes with a system he thought would be more reliable: a storage-area network, connecting storage devices in different sites over a network, built on IBM blade servers, which he says provided redundancy that the company never had in place. And the planning did the trick—Wiggins says he hasn't had a blade fail in almost two years.

One customer has a wish, though: Linda Gerull, manager of geographic information systems for Pierce County, Wash., and Bill Morman, senior manager for systems operations, would like to use the blade servers to create three-dimensional graphics. But the blades, they say, have insufficient graphics cards to support 3D rendering, or creating detailed maps and images on its computer systems. So, to create images, they run their rendering software on a traditional server with more powerful graphics cards.

Tim Dougherty, director of strategy for IBM's BladeCenter line, says most public sector customers run rendering programs on workstations or client servers, not blades. Some customers have asked for better graphics cards on blades, but Dougherty believes it's not worth the investment for Big Blue.

One customer says IBM's products couldn't be better—with one exception. Veryl White, director of technology infrastructure for W.S. Badcock Corp., a home furnishing manufacturer based in Mulberry, Fla., thinks he may have gotten a "lemon" when he purchased a first-generation BladeCenter in 2003.

Within a year, White says, IBM had to replace hard drives on all 14 blades he bought because the drives leaked lubricant when turned on their side. An IBM spokesman says that "a batch" of early integrated drives had to be replaced because of lubrication problems, but the spokesman didn't discuss Badcock's specific problems.

White still uses the BladeCenter but says he won't upgrade due to the "hassle" the drive failures caused. "We love IBM and their equipment," he says. But when it comes to blades, "Once was enough."

IBM: At A Glance

NEW ORCHARD RD. / ARMONK, NY 10504 / (914) 499-1900 / WWW.IBM.COM


Sam Palmisano
Chairman & CEO

William M. Zeitler
SVP, Systems and Technology Group

BladeCenter LS 21 and LS 41 blades, released Aug. 1, feature AMD Opteron processors, while the HS line includes Intel chips. Three different chassis models provide a range of networking and cooling options.
Reference Checks

Denver Health Hospital
Jeff Pelot

Randall-Reilly Publishing
Karl Wiggins
Mgr., Technical Services

GHY International
Nigel Fortlage
VP, I.T.

Pierce County, Wash.
Bill Morman
Sr. Mgr., Systems Operations

W.S. Badcock corp.
Veryl White
Dir., Technology Infrastructure

Coldwater Creek
Stewart Hubbard
Dir., Server Engineering
(208) 665-1000


2006FYTD* 2005FY 2004FY
Revenue $42.55B $91.13B $96.29B
Net income $3.73B $7.99B $7.48B
R&D spending $2.98B $5.84B $5.87B

* Fiscal year ends Dec. 31
FYTD represents first six months ended June 30, 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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