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Blade server options for SMBs

Customers generally avoid blade servers because of problems maintaining and supporting them, but VARs can use thier expertise to ease the burden.

Mark Arnold
Talk to most IT managers at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) about blade servers, such as the IBM BladeCenter series or HP ProLiant BL servers, and they will probably be quick to tell you the technology isn't for them: It requires far too much expertise, supporting infrastructure and financial outlay to make it worthwhile.

Then you ask how many servers are in their server closets and the numbers will be in the mid to late teens rather than countable on one hand. If you work in IT provisioning you can immediately see your inroad here; the manager has more servers than a single standard blade chassis will hold.

Why do blade servers make sense for SMBs? For one, floor space is often at a premium. Anything to reduce the server room footprint is welcomed.

More on storage server virtualization:
Blade storage management considerations

Virtualizing servers, storage, and networks

Let's take a typical Microsoft-based infrastructure. There may be an ISA Server to provide proxy services, SQL Server and Exchange, a couple of domain controllers, perhaps a Web and an application server, as well as the ubiquitous file and print server. That's eight servers so far. Some old servers won't be rack-mounted, taking up too much space. Those that are rack mounted are probably between three and four "U" each (a "U" being an inch and three quarters). The space taken up by a chassis of up to 16 blades is around 6U.

Virtualization is another possibility. Many SMBs will notice servers are underutilized. Domain controllers will operate at around 5% processor capacity; other servers are not likely to be much higher; even Exchange and SQL Server will be in the 20 to 40% range. Reducing the number of processors on the server room floor will alleviate the budget in any number of ways. Small organizations considering virtualization may be dissuaded because they don't have space for a spare server to take the load of virtualized guests should a physical host fail. Hosting a number of blades will allow "guest redistribution" to take place with a greatly reduced financial outlay.

When it comes to managing the blade infrastructure, your options are equally attractive. For example, fewer high-speed networking ports are required as the blade backplane is responsible for handling network traffic. Instead of the previously mentioned eight servers using 16 network ports (because you want to provide resiliency, don't you?) they can operate using between four and six. Network switches are still one capital item that businesses overlook, only to cobble together what they can from wherever they can. Power is another example. How many SMB server rooms look like a veritable rats' nest with adapter blocks around the room drawing more power for longer times than they were designed for?

Server monitoring is another task of concern. With a blade chassis in the server room, monitoring becomes much easier. Hardware and operating systems health is now managed by a single console on the desk of the "IT Guy."

To summarize then, blade servers will be either the same or cheaper to procure or lease, take up less space, be centrally managed and use less peripheral infrastructure than comparable standalone servers. It is worth another look, especially for the SMB.

About the author: MCSE+M, Microsoft MVP, is a technical architect for Posetiv Ltd., a U.K.-based storage integrator. He is responsible for the design of Microsoft Exchange and other Microsoft Server solutions for Posetiv's client base in terms of the SAN and NAS storage on which those technologies reside. Arnold has been a Microsoft MVP in the Exchange discipline since 2001, contributes to the Microsoft U.K. "Industry Insiders" TechNet program and can be found in the Exchange newsgroups and other Exchange forums. You can contact him at

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