Back in September we reported that IBM and Intel had released a standard that they hoped would encourage hardware vendors to build systems to those design specifications. The good news is that convergence on the standard is starting to happen.

Work on the design standard began two years earlier, in 2002. IBM -- with 44 per cent of the blade server market -- brought its expertise in system design and software while Intel of course delivered processor, chipset and communications know-how.

The search for standards
The search for standards has been a fairly long one. Blades first appeared in the boom years but, unlike so many ideas from those halcyon days, they haven't disappeared. Instead the notion of a computer on a card has taken hold. It's been most popular in larger data centres but has now spread its tentacles into most enterprises of any size, thanks to a growing versatility and ability to perform a wide range of tasks in a variety of circumstances. The price has been right too, especially as the costs of cooling blade servers has risen along with the heat generation of the processors that power them.

The advantages can bear reiteration, including floor space savings, ease of management and reduced cabling requirements. They're also easier to scale: you just slot in another blade or two to boost your chassis' capabilities. All this saves money, which aligns well with the desire of hardware vendors' customers to do more with less; to cut their cost of ownership.

Blades first appeared as low-powered systems that could be tightly packed, as heat dissipation was relatively low. This was fine for single use machines performing such tasks as Web serving. Today though, vendors are keen to sell higher-powered systems into medium-sized enterprises with more complex requirements.

Enterprises have been keen to buy them too as they can lower costs by increasing utilisation. Note that blade server revenues reached $287 million in the third quarter of 2004 and look likely to top $1 billion this year; market researcher IDC reckons that the market will grow to more than $7 billion by 2007.

Yet despite the advance of technology, it remains largely the case that servers are dedicated to single tasks -- one for MS Exchange, another for web serving and so on. What blades offer is the ability to treat a bunch of them as if they were one using a chassis management system. Add virtualisation which allows you to run and spawn tasks anywhere on the chassis and it's a killer combination. Utilisation increases, extracting more work from the asset, and the number of pieces of hardware required falls. That cuts costs -- less power, less support, less maintenance and so on.

Bearing fruit
So the development of standards can only be a good thing, and it's starting to bear fruit; IBM last week announced that 100 companies had downloaded the specs.

The specifications include guidelines and tips and tricks for building blade components. It should mean that end users will soon have access to network switches, adapter cards and other products designed especially for IBM’s blade servers. Emulex, for example, plans to release a Fibre Channel host bus adapter specifically for BladeCenter in the next few months. The specs don't, though, allow companies to clone entire blade systems as not all the parts needed to build a blade are in the specification. Independent hardware vendors will still have to come to IBM or Intel for the chassis or the management module.

As you'd expect, though, IBM has used the jointly developed blade designs as the basis for its eServer BladeCenter platform, while Intel has offered the technology to hardware makers under licence.

So there's still plenty of work for vendors to do. They'll need management systems at the very least. But expect to see plenty of action in this area in 2005 -- not least over issues of how to build management systems, as well as thorny questions such as software licensing in a virtualised environment that have yet to be resolved.