While Hewlett-Packard and IBM have the lion's share of commercial blade server sales in the world, there are a number of other players hanging on in the space, trying to stay ahead of the crushing marketing force of Big Gray and Big Blue with technology innovation and playing to niches. One of the niche players, San Diego-based Verari Systems, has just updated its blade boxes to have a stronger appeal to enterprise customers.
Most makers of commercial blade servers think of blade servers in terms of filling a chassis of from 7U to 10U in size inside a rack. But Verari and its niche blade provider compatriot, Egenera, have thought of blade systems starting at the rack level and then engineered the resulting blade architecture to make the most of the space inside a rack.
What makes Verari somewhat unique from other players in the blade space, says company co-founder and chief technology officer, David Driggers, is that Verari (once known by the name RackSaver) has always made its blade servers from common, off-the-shelf components, not specially shrunk motherboards, switches, and such - and it has still been able to deliver the kinds of densities that have allowed the company to build a blade business that rakes in more than $100 million a year. (How much more than $100 million, Driggers is not saying, and Verari is privately held, so we can't make them tell us).
While HP got into blades around the turn of the millennium and IBM followed a few years later, Verari has had three generations of blade designs to HP's and IBM's two. The launch of the BladeRack E-Class racks completes the roll out of the third generation of gear.
Cooling from the Bottom
Verari was founded in 1991 and sells rack servers as well, but blades are what people go to the company for these days. As in years gone by, Driggers says that the company's blades still use standard motherboards, full height memory DIMMs, 3.5-inch disks, and other full-sized components, and it uses engineering to get the kinds of densities that customers will pay Verari from.
The big innovation, of course, is to not do the back-to-front cooling that rack servers use, but to do what mainframes have always done, which is think bottom-to-top when it comes to cooling. So, Verari's BladeRack racks pull cool air from the bottom of the rack (where the cool air is near the floor anyway) and suck it up through the electronic components and vent it out the top of the rack (where warmed air wants to go anyway).
With the current generation of BladeRack 2 products, the company has split its racks into high-end and low-end products rather than have a single product line, as it had in the XT generation. The XL-Class of racks, launched in February of this year, comes with a 208-400 volt AC power distribution system and packs up to 72 blades in the rack (144 blades per rack is possible using half-width motherboards), for a maximum of 576 processor cores using quad-core X64 chips and up to 672 disks per rack.
The Verari Line in Detail
The new E-Class racks have more expensive and redundant power supplies and distribution to the rack and are designed to support denser blades with more processors and cores and therefore a requirement for more power. The E-Class rack holds only 66 blades, for a maximum of 480 x64 cores and 528 disks per rack. The power supplies in the XL racks are rated at 85 per cent efficiency, while the E racks use supplies rated at 90 per cent or higher.
The L-class machines are popular among supercomputing data centers and companies in the oil and gas industries, while the E-Class racks are being pitched to customers (both corporates and service providers and hosters) who need beefier blades to support virtualized operating system stacks and who want redundancy on components to better ensure uptime.
The older M-Class racks from Verari are a pure density play that supports up to 96 blades and 768 cores, according to Driggers. This is popular among financial services companies that have jam-packed data centers and ever-thinner budgets these days.
"Scale out still resonates as financial customers are trying to cut costs. We might be selling to a different customer from week to week," Driger says with a laugh, referring to the rate at which big banks are snapping up their former competitors.
The Bank Formerly Known as Wachovia
Verari's largest customer has over 10,000 servers installed, and the typical customer will not even think of Verari until they want to buy several hundred servers - somewhere between two and four racks - and who realize they might be running up against power and cooling issues.
Transplanted British airline Virgin America is a Verari customer (with 180 blades and over 60 virtualized servers using ESV Server), and so are Microsoft, Akamai, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Qualcomm, Sony Imageworks, and Wachovia (well, the bank formerly known as Wachovia, soon to be Citicorp or Wells Fargo). Verari is, for now, just focusing on five verticals: financial services, service providers, electronics design automation, oil and gas exploration, and media and entertainment.
As far as interconnections go, even the high-end customers that Verari is chasing are still, by and large, using Gigabit Ethernet to link their blades to the outside world, but some customers are, according to Driggers, dabbling in 10 Gigabit Ethernet and some others are looking at InfiniBand, too.
The latter two are being pushed by the needs for more bandwidth as servers and their networking get virtualized, driving up the need for more bandwidth as CPUs are virtualized and therefore used more efficiently. Octo-core "Nehalem" Xeon due early next year with spiffy virtualization features will only make this CPU-network imbalance worse.
Driggers says that today's typical Verari customer supporting VMware's ESX Server hypervisor has six Ethernet ports and two Fibre Channel ports for linking to storage area networks, and that Verari can deliver four times the density that the 4U servers that most companies are deploying to support ESX Server.
Customers are, Driggers says, trying to get away from Fibre Channel in virtualized environments to simplify their networks. Hence the interest in InfiniBand and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Verari has a partnership with Blade Network Technologies for its top-of-rack switches and also is working with Xsigo, which sells an I/O virtualization appliance called I/O Director that, as the name suggests, virtualizes network and storage I/O.
Pricing on the E-Class racks was not announced, and they are similarly not available to the public for the wide variety of Intel Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices Opteron blades that slide into the racks. ®