Choosing a Unix-based blade server

Get details on offering Unix-based blade servers from the big Unix vendors on the market, including HP, Sun and IBM.

Solution provider takeaway: Solution providers interested in selling Unix-based blade servers can choose among hardware from HP, Sun and IBM.

After years of being left out of the blade server discussion, integrators who specialize in Unix- and Linux-based technologies are now able to participate. With the top three Unix vendors adding blade servers to their Unix-based lineups, it makes sense for Unix/Linux integrators to jump in and offer blade servers to their customers. In fact, not doing so will likely hurt your business.

So what's the attraction to Unix-based blades? Like their x86 brethren, Unix-based blade servers enable dramatic server consolidation, and that consolidation can be further enhanced with server virtualization. But beyond that, Unix-based blade servers deliver high reliability, performance and scalability. Together, these two drivers make a compelling case for your Unix customers.

With that in mind, let's discuss the competing products of the big three Unix vendors: Hewlett-Packard (HP), Sun and IBM.

HP

HP entered the blade server market in late 2005 with the Integrity BL60p blade server, supporting HP-UX 11i (HP's Unix) operating system and driven by the Intel Itanium processor. Today the company offers the BL860c, with dual-core Intel Itanium processors. With the HP BladeSystem, you can deploy these blades running HP-UX, Linux, OpenVMS or Windows in a consolidated infrastructure with a common management platform. The HP BladeSystem supports ProLiant and Integrity blade servers, as well as StorageWorks storage hardware. It connects to the most popular networking standards, including Ethernet, Fibre Channel and InfiniBand. Note that Solaris is supported on the ProLiant series only. The same versions of HP-UX that are supported on the blades also run on HP's high-end Superdome Integrity servers. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 and 5 as well as SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 have been certified on the BladeSystem.

Sun

According to IDC, Sun's 2007 fourth-quarter results were very promising. Its Unix blades (including their CMT and Netra product lines) captured almost 50% of the overall Unix blade server market. The Sun 6000 Modular System bundles Sun's own UltraSPARC T1 (with CoolThreads technology) and x64-based blades and runs Solaris, Linux and Windows, with support for VMware. The system enables up to 48 Sun Blade server modules, as many as 768 processing cores, per rack.

IBM

IBM offers the BladeCenter JS22 blade servers, which run either IBM's AIX or Linux. The blades offer a shared power infrastructure, providing more energy-efficient power supplies that can reach peak efficiencies even with minimal load, saving as much as 28% over other power supplies. IBM's Calibrated Vector Cooling technology allows the system to have dual paths of air for each component, increasing system life while reducing wasteful air movement. Finally, IBM's Systems Director Active Energy Manager 3.1 fully supports the IBM BladeCenter, allowing you to monitor and manage the energy requirements of your servers. The BladeCenter supports the company's PowerVM virtualization technology, which offers a number of useful features:

  • Micropartition and shared processor pools: Micropartioning allows CPUs to be carved up into as many as 10 virtual partitions, and it enables sharing of CPU, RAM and I/O.
  • VIO Servers: These are special partitions that enable you to service resources to clients that want to share I/O resources. Shared Ethernet and virtual SCSI allow sharing of network and disk I/O.
  • Live Partition Mobility: This feature introduced with IBM's Power6 architecture allows you to move running AIX or Linux partitions from one physical server to another.
  • Lx86: This recent innovation allows you to run x86 Linux applications that haven't been ported to the Power architecture, directly on a Linux partition without recompilation.

How Unix-based blade servers compare

HP gets major kudos for allowing competing Unix variants such as Solaris to run on its hardware. Sun allows multiple operating systems, including Windows, to run on its blades. While IBM blade servers can run only AIX or Linux, the company gets top grades for its PowerVM virtualization support.

Despite the benefits of blades, it's important to remember that they're not for everyone; they don't scale well for vertical-based applications that need maximum horsepower. Before selling your clients on Unix blade servers, make sure this is the right solution for them, considering questions like, Are they consolidating servers or data centers? Are they looking to reduce TCO in the data center? If the answers to these questions is no, you should likely be looking in a different direction altogether.

About the author
Ken Milberg heads a consulting firm, Unix-Linux Solutions. He has more than 20 years of experience with Unix and Linux systems, as well as broad technical and functional experience with AIX, HP, SCO and Solaris.


This was first published in August 2008

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