What is old is new again
Those of us who have been working with DataPower appliances since the company was acquired by IBM in the fall of 2005 have become quite used to its form factor. It’s always been "1U" (meaning one "rack unit" of 1.75" in height and roughly pizza-box shaped -- although the pizza box has become longer in recent years). The outward appearance of these products has always spoken directly of their simplicity and consumability: four Ethernet ports, a DB-9 serial interface, and a power switch.
This basic shell design has remained consistent, and this form factor has been leveraged both within the DataPower line (for new models such as the B2B Appliance XB60, Low Latency Appliance XM70, XC10 caching appliance, and the Cast Iron Appliance XH35) and outside of it for products like the IBM WebSphere CloudBurst™ appliance. That’s why when the XI50B was announced in late April (and became available in June), it really got my attention -- it was like seeing some strange craft from a galaxy far away!
We’re all quite familiar with the WebSphere DataPower Integration Appliance XI50 because it’s been the flagship of the DataPower line for quite some time. This new model, with a simple "B" added to the product identifier, might mislead you into thinking "Oh, it's just the XI50 in a blade form factor", but that’s not the case. There are several differences, some due to advantages of the blade platform, some are enhancements to the standard XI50 feature set, but we’ll get to all that.
First, let’s step back a bit and answer the fundamental question "What is 'blade' and why should I care?"
So, what is this blade of which I speak?
Well, the concept revolves around the idea that the basic shell or infrastructure should provide the bare necessities: power, networking, management, a high-speed bus, cooling, and storage. This is referred to as the blade enclosure, or BladeCenter® chassis in IBM terminology. The chassis has slots in which blade servers (the actual blades) can be placed to take advantage of the surrounding infrastructure. The blade servers have their own processors, memory, operating systems, and perhaps additional storage. But by sharing the chassis resources, the entire system is much more efficient in terms of things like power consumption, making for a greener solution.
It’s estimated that half of IT costs go to power and cooling , and we know where those expenses have been going lately and will probably continue to go: up. Performance also benefits, especially for communications between blades over the fast internal bus. Data center efficiency is optimized with much less complexity and cabling. IBM’s BladeCenter home page states that, in some cases, economies can be up to:
- 17X faster performance.
- 94% reduction just in energy costs.
- 97% IT footprint reduction.
- 50% lower connectivity costs.
- 92% fewer networking cables.
This enables IT departments to "right-size" their solutions for current needs, as well as easily grow to meet later demands. In fact, some recent IBM commercials really emphasize these points in a very amusing manner (if you are reading this article online, watch the YouTube videos in the Resources section for IBM BladeCenter commercials focusing on the advantages in reduced space utilization, reduced cabling, cooling, energy consumption, and server reduction). It’s important to add that the blade concept and products are not IBM’s alone; other companies offer blades and chassis as well with their own design.
Enter the DataPower Blade
Being focused on WebSphere DataPower, as I tend to be, I didn’t know any of this about blades until word of the project began to hit my inbox. Intrigued, I began to learn more about the blade platform. I quickly realized what a great fit it would be for DataPower, particularly the XI50 with its ESB capabilities. But what’s different in the blade version from a "regular" XI50 DataPower SOA appliance?
Anyone familiar with the standard XI50 knows that you get a tremendous amount of capability at blazing fast speeds already. The product’s feature set in terms of security, ESB functionality, XML and non-XML transformation and mediation all benefit even further from the blade environment. Some key differentiators from a standard XI50 are:
- 10-gig Ethernet: Rather than the four single-gigabit Ethernet ports found on the XI50, the XI50B has two of these that are 10gigE (of course, you must have a 10gigE environment to take advantage of this).
- XML acceleration: The XML accelerator card that is offered as an option with the XI50 is standard on the XI50B. This card enables the limitations in processing XML to be even further broken down with features like concurrent pipelined XML tasks, such as schema validation.
- Auxiliary hard drive storage: Whereas hard drive storage is an option on the XI50, it’s included and expanded in the XI50B, which has the ability to leverage the chassis storage.
- Trusted Platform Module: The XI50B can leverage the BladeCenter Trusted Platform Module for encryption of the embedded flash drive.
- IBM System Director: The XI50B can integrate with the BladeCenter management module for typical BladeCenter hardware management and monitoring functions.
- NEBS capable: This might be important for users who need to comply with Network Equipment-Building System (NEBS) requirements.
Those are all interesting, but what really excites me is the ability to take advantage of some of the XI50 features on this platform. For example, the IBM z/OS® integration in areas like sysplex distributor load balancing to the appliances, the crypto-material (key/cert) sharing feature, and IMS™ Connect. Certainly, optional features such as the database drivers and application optimization self-balancing (to the blades) and intelligent load balancing (from the blades to other servers) will prove to be high-powered in this environment. Connectivity capabilities to JMS, WebSphere MQ, TIBCO EMS, and standard protocols like (s)FTP(s) should prove useful as well, particularly in the back end trusted zone.
And we haven’t even started talking about the core capabilities, such as the proxying of legacy Web applications, Web services, and Web 2.0!
These are the things that keep life (well, at least work life) interesting. I’m sure that many DataPower practitioners such as myself have their hands full just coming to grips with the tremendous capabilities that are already offered, so it’s easy to let an announcement like this fall off the radar. But I hope I’ve opened a few eyes anyway, and glad that I managed to discuss the glory of blade technology without even once referring to the Will Farrell ice skating movie. I hope you weren’t waiting for that!
- XI50B Announcement
- WebSphere DataPower product information
- WebSphere CloudBurst product information
- IBM BladeCenter product information
- IBM BladeCenter videos:
- IBM developerWorks WebSphere