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Blade storage for SMBs: The pros and cons

The blades in blade chassis are server blades, with storage being some combination of direct-attached storage, network-attached storage or a storage area network. Learn about the pros and cons of blade storage for SMBs.

Historically, the blades in blade chassis have been server blades, with storage being some combination of on-blade disks, direct-attached storage (DAS), network-attached storage (NAS) or a storage area network (SAN). However, as applications' storage demands grow, on-blade disks may not offer enough capacity. As a result, external storage for SMBs can be harder to house, configure and manage.

Vendors like Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are increasingly offering blade storage for SMBs. Blade storage comes in several varieties or approaches:

  • According to Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group, storage blades go into the chassis, with drives or storage embedded on the blade.
  • Storage for blade chassis, where the chassis has separate slots for drives.
  • External storage intended for use with blade servers, i.e., something that's optimized to work with blade environments.

These approaches offer the simplicity, ease of acquisition and ease of use needed by SMBs -- storage that is pre-integrated, preinstalled and preconfigured, and with management tools optimized for rapid set up.

The benefits of blade storage for SMBs

"The benefits of blade storage are analogous to the benefits of blade servers," said Charles King, president and principal analyst, Pund-IT Inc. "For SMBs, you're talking about a single enclosure where you can consolidate all your storage, and manage it from a single location, and the maintenance and management can be done in a highly integrated fashion."

According to David Tareen, worldwide marketing manager and IO team lead, System x Blades, IBM, other reasons for wanting to move storage outside a server include reliability. "The disk is the only moving part on a server. A diskless blade is much more robust, and easier to replace."

HP's blade storage offering includes the BladeSystem c7000 enclosure (populated with 16 blades), and the StorageWorks SB40c, a half-height c-Class storage blade featuring support for up to six hot-plug Small Form Factor (SFF) Serial-Attached SCSI (SAS) or Serial ATA (SATA) hard disk drives.

"The SB40c provides DAS that lets you add six drives to a specific blade -- it's not shared storage." For users who want to share blade storage, said Lee Johns, director of marketing, entry storage and storage blades, HP. "The SB600C is an iSCSI connected storage blade, which provides up to 2 TB of storage, through 8 250GB drives (SFF), and this can be shared, either as a file server, for NAS, or as an iSCSI block storage for email, database."

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IBM's blade storage platform for the SMB market, says IBM's Tareen, is the BladeCenter S.

"The S chassis has lots of space for disks -- space for six blades, and 12 3.5" disks -- versus our BladeCenter E and other chassis, which are focused on the highest density possible," said Tareen."

Systems like the IBM BladeCenter E are appropriate for sites with limited local IT resources, and where small footprint, power and cooling loads are important.

Sun's server blades currently support up to four hard drives. The Sun Blade 6000 lets users add storage capacity to a Sun Blade 6000 system.

Sun's disk module storage blades currently can hold up to eight hot-swappable small-form-factor (SFF) hard drives. "You can pair up one disk module for each server module," according to according to Francis Lam, product line manager at Sun. Sun has a firmware update planned for the disk module for 2009, which will let users pair up to three disk modules per server blade.

According to Lam, the Sun Blade 6000 requires 220v -- so you can't just plug it into most U.S. wall sockets. This makes it primarily an alternative to racks in a computer room or data center, for companies starting out small, rather than for SMBs and branch-/remote-office environments.

"With the proper implementation, blade storage is a good fit for certain environments," stated Natalya Yezhkova, research manager, storage systems, IDC. "The most interesting use cases so far are IBM's BladeCenter S, which creates all-in-one with storage, servers and networking, which is good for SMBs and for branch-office environments, particularly from a storage point of view. In terms of high-end, blade storage is a good fit for certain applications."

Blade storage cost considerations

The blade or module that holds the hard drives costs anywhere from $750 to $2,000, or even more, and the chassis can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000. For example, typical prices for an HP StorageWorks SB40c are approximately $1,500, and around $7,000 for an HP BladeSystem c7000 enclosure; $850 for an IBM BladeCenter S 6-Disk Storage Module; around $1,500 for a Sun Blade 6000 Disk Module - hard drive array, and around $5,000 for the chassis.

Keep in mind that you'll also need the actual hard drives, and other components and the chassis' service contract can be nearly as much as the chassis proper. So if you don't yet have a chassis, you're looking at an initial price of around $10,000 or more for the HP, IBM and Sun systems.

"The benefits of blade storage for SMBs are saving costs, e.g., overall IT acquisition, operations, power and cooling, plus potentially tighter integration with the server environment, and reduced costs in storage networking," said Schulz.

Schulz also noted that blade storage also has a "hidden" benefit: Serial-Attached SCSI (SAS). "If you have SAS capability on the blades, you get the ability of shared DAS that may be cheaper than iSCSI, with the performance of Fibre Channel."

According to King, if you're considering blade storage, you should ask how much storage each system will support on board, and if you need to add additional storage, how you can add it seamlessly.

SMBs also need to pay attention to channel accessibility, said Schulz. "The ease of acquisition is often overlooked and assumed. Every vendor has or claims 'ease of use, flexibility,' but the differentiator is how easy it is for the SMB to find the solution, acquire it through the channel, make that decision, have it ordered and shipped, and be easy and affordable to buy."

Daniel P. Dern is an independent technology writer. He can be reached at dern@pair.com. His web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is Let us know. Please let others know how useful this tip was via the rating scale below.

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