Blade servers: Early adopters offer their tips, tricks

Planning is required, and early adopters say that heating, cooling and space allocation are issues around which to be especially careful

While blade servers can offer tremendous benefits for the data center, early adopters of the technology warn fellow IT implementers to plan very carefully.

"The impact on facilities wasn't considered when blades first came out, so you have to do some serious capacity planning and architecture development before deploying them," says Brian Smith, data center manager at The Cerner Corp. in Kansas City.

Blades are self-contained servers that support high-density computing. Unlike their stand-alone predecessors, they share components, such as a monitor, with other blades to ease management, allow for organized cabling and smaller server footprints in the data center.

Cerner, which hosts applications for hospitals, has been working with blade servers in its seven data centers for the past three years and has almost 1,200 in use today.

Smith says he has learned firsthand the promise and perils of the technology. On the upside, blade servers allow companies to consolidate their operations and employ advanced management tools such as virtualization. On the other hand, blade servers are notorious energy drains that wreak havoc on data centers' power and cooling resources. "Data centers can cook if they aren't prepared for the high density," Smith says.

Blades have bigger power needs

Jeff Stein, director of professional services at InteleNet Communications in California agrees. "The typical power requirement for a standard server is 120-volt power. The typical requirement for a blade is 208-volt power. Some facilities just can't offer that," he says.

InteleNet, a managed service provider, has 500 blade servers split between its main facility in Irvine, which it owns, and another facility in Phoenix. Stein just completed "a significant power expansion project" to support the blades. "In Irvine, the original construction and electrical designs for the facility were able to deliver a certain number of watts per square foot on average. Recent hardware developments, such as the blade servers, have forced us to enhance the infrastructure of this data center to support the increasing electrical and cooling requirements," he says.

He admits the team ran into challenges when they first deployed the blades almost two years ago. "We run a data center, deal with lots of power requirements and we still made an error when we bought our first chassis," he says.

Stein says the team purchased power distribution units and cabling that were much larger than anticipated. "This limited what additional equipment could be installed effectively in the same cabinet with the blades. We made sure to take note so that we never make that mistake again," he says.

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