Dell unsheathes blade servers

The computer maker announces a new blade-server line, dubbed PowerEdge 1655MC, along with management software to go with it, as it looks to move beyond PCs.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
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poweredge1655mc Dell Computer wants a cut of the blade-server market.

The company, in a press conference Wednesday morning in New York, announced a new blade-server line, dubbed PowerEdge 1655MC, along with management software to go with it. As earlier reported, Dell is likely to flesh out its blade strategy in a meeting with analysts Thursday, at which it may also discuss topics including component price increases and possible buyouts in the services market.

Server blades are essentially small servers built on cards that can be plugged into a special rack, where they are stacked like dishes or library books. The rack offers a shared power supply and networking capabilities and allows customers to add servers on an as-needed basis. Typically, blade servers are used for jobs such as Web site hosting.

The new Dell blade server product line allows up to 84 servers, each equipped with up to two 1.26GHz Intel Pentium III processors, to fit into a single rack (six servers per enclosure, 14 enclosures in a rack).

Dell also announced two new PowerEdge servers, the 6600 and 6650, based on Intel's latest Xeon MP processor.

The company plans to introduce blade servers based on Intel's new 800MHz dual-processor-capable Pentium III chips, introduced last month.

The new blade servers are part of a larger push by Dell to expand into areas beyond the PC. Though the company has reached the No. 1 spot in industry-standard servers, machines that are based on Intel hardware and Microsoft Windows or Linux operating systems, and it continues to grow its market share in the PC market, Dell is looking to continue its expansion into higher-margin markets.

A deeper push into servers, though, will put it into conflict with IBM and Sun Microsystems. Sun will be coming out with low-cost Linux servers later this quarter targeted at taking business away from PC makers like Dell.

Dell says the new servers present customers with a more flexible approach to meeting their computing needs in areas such as applications processing.

The new server models, such as the new blade server, combined with Dell's new management software will allow customers to essentially pay as they go, adding machines one or two at a time, as their computing needs increase.

Dell's approach is somewhat different from those of other companies. IBM, for instance, often consolidates its customers' servers on one large machine. But Dell took this tack "based on what we believe are the majority needs of IT (information technology) customers that we're serving today," Randy Grove, Dell's vice president of enterprise computing, said during the company's news conference Wednesday.

Those customers, Grove said, have been unwilling to move from traditional servers to blade servers because they have not wanted to give up any computing performance, despite the fact that blades are designed to save money.

The current crop of blade servers uses low-power processors running at 600MHz to 700MHz to achieve a higher density of servers per rack. But Dell designed its new blade servers to use full-fledged 1.26GHz Pentium III chips, based on these customer needs, Grove said.

Dell executives also discussed the company's brick server strategy Wednesday. Bricks are Lego-like computing blocks that can be assembled to form larger, more complex computers. The first bricks are due toward the end of the year.

In the meeting with analysts Thursday, Dell is expected to address the effect of component price increases on its business and the possibility of acquisitions in the services market. Dell has acquired only one company in its history, ConvergeNet, and has already shut down the facilities it acquired in that deal. Still, executives from the company have recently discussed openly how acquisitions could occur.

Dell is coming into the blade-server market later than competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer. Both companies have launched single-processor server blades based on Intel's 700MHz Pentium III uniprocessor chip for blade servers in the past few months. Dell, though, will argue that it can offer better price or performance.

The software factor
Dell will also address, through software, one of the pressing issues with blade servers: managing them.

Although hardware companies have largely discussed how the design of these smaller servers uses less power and saves valuable backroom real estate, the introduction of blades will create new data-management problems. Instead of having to manage 84 servers in a rack, IT managers will have to worry about keeping tabs on hundreds of servers at once. Software will become a competitive differentiator.

One blade start-up, Racemi, is exiting the hardware part of the blade business to concentrate on blade-management software.

"Probably more than anything else, the real difference is going to be the software. What do I do when I literally have hundreds of these things? How can I manage these things in aggregate?" said David Freund, an analyst at Illuminata. "Blades simplify the physical aspects (of server deployment), but they intensify the software-management issues."

Dell updated its OpenManage server software with new features, including proactive problem notification and remote access. Dell also tapped Jareva Technologies for software to simplify the installation of standard and blade-style servers. Customers can use the software to install operating systems and applications, among other things.

Once tackled, blade management should open the door to other sales opportunities. Internet service providers will likely offer blade systems that can be automatically reconfigured to handle sudden bulges of traffic, Freund predicted.

The PowerEdge 1655MC blade server will offer as many as two 1.26GHz Pentium III chips, dual hard drives and up to 2GB of RAM. It will ship during the third quarter, at which time pricing will be announced, Dell said.

The new PowerEdge 6600 and PowerEdge 6650 will ship next month with prices starting around $5,500 and $5,200, respectively, the company said.

As for bricks, so far Dell has said that a single brick could be designed to provide processor power, handle input/output or contain storage. Multiple bricks will therefore need to be linked together to build large servers. But that's the idea. Customers will be able to fit the bricks together in various configurations to custom-build servers to meet their needs, Dell executives have said.

Dell will manufacture these various kinds of bricks using off-the-shelf components such as Intel processors, which will keep prices relatively low.

Other markets key to Dell's success will include storage and IT services. The company has begun to beef up these areas with new products, alliances and hires. For example, Dell formed a far-reaching relationship with storage giant EMC. In the relationship, Dell is providing manufacturing and logistics expertise to EMC, while EMC is making Dell its primary sales channel for small and midsized businesses.

In services, Dell tapped Jeff Lynn, a former Compaq executive, to run its services operations, including its Dell Technology Consulting group.

Dell also announced an alliance with Microsoft involving InfiniBand, a technology for connecting CPUs with one another and with peripherals such as storage systems and network cards. Dell said it is working with the software giant to create a hardware-software framework for using the technology in its blades and other servers.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.