Standard servers have increasingly given way to blades in data centre environments. Is a shift to skinless servers the next stage? Not quite, according to Gartner, but collectively blades and skinless systems will play an increasingly important role.
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Their small size and reduced power requirements have made blade servers a major component of many data centre architectures. The combination of blades and virtualisation is widely credited for dramatically improving data centre throughput.
Skinless servers take that approach to the next level, aiming to create as minimal an environment as possible by removing unneeded elements. Skinless servers will generally rely on shared cooling and power systems, rather than having a discrete solution for each server, and often don't have any external casing, hence the name. (The term 'multinode' is sometimes used to describe them; that's the approach taken in Gartner's most recent server market forecast.)
In 2011, the server market remained dominated by rack-optimised systems (that is, full server systems designed for easy installation in a standard rack unit). Those account for 56 per cent of sales worldwide, according to Gartner.
By 2016, that figure will be largely unchanged. What will shift is what happens with other categories. In 2011, blades accounted for 13 per cent of the market, rack-mountable and tower systems for 20 per cent, and skinless servers for 12 per cent. In 2016, those figures will change to 14 per cent, 18 per cent and 13 per cent respectively, marking a small but notable shift away from conventional systems.
"Skinless will only cover a small proportion of workloads, but it can be easy expansion path," analyst Evan Zeng noted at the recent Gartner Symposium event in Queensland. "The blade server can't do everything. Few organisations will meet all their needs with a blade-based architecture." Adding management tools to skinless servers can also be an effective way to build single-purpose appliances, he said.
Which component gets chosen will be influenced by planned usage. "Blades are the best choice when maximum performance per watt or per square metre counts," Zeng said.
Companies shifting from conventional servers to blades often stick with their existing server supplier, but that approach needs to change once virtualisation becomes a major component of future plans. "As virtualisation becomes a bigger issue, include storage and networking vendors in your decision making process," Zeng advised.