The Oral History of Selling World of Warcraft Server Blades

World Of Warcraft Overview Page For History Of WoW Server Sales Cover
World Of Warcraft Overview Page For History Of WoW Server Sales Cover

A few months ago, I was flying to SC23 in Denver and had an exciting gentleman sitting on the plane next to me between Phoenix and Denver. He told me tales of how Blizzard decided to auction off its servers to its devoted fans, benefitting the St. Jude charity. This story is over a decade old, so it is time that we record the oral history for more to hear.

The Oral History of Selling World of Warcraft Server Blades

World of Warcraft was a massively popular game, especially back in 2007-2011. Even about a decade and a half later, estimates still put the number of daily logins at over 1 million people. Logging into a server is important. Each player’s character is tied to a named realm that is online almost constantly, save for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. In an open-world game, having a server that tracks the state of all of the players and NPCs on the server is important.

World Of Warcraft Overview
World Of Warcraft Overview

The game launch in November 2004, had already seen some hardware challenges. A big server cluster that was running the game’s beta was in the path of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. The data center, just weeks before launch, was damaged by the storm, and water leaked into the facility. I was told that there was a cleaning operation for these super-early servers where trucks rolled to the facility to wash the servers before putting them back into production. As an aside, if any of our readers do this, please reach out and let me know. I think this would be cool to show folks.

In 2005, AMD launched the Dual-Core Opteron series with its Italy cores. Blizzard deployed the new AMD Opteron 275 processors in HP ProLiant BL25p blades and they offered huge performance improvements. These were fairly early dual-core processors (circa 2005) and this was in an era where AMD was out-innovating Intel in the data center market. If you want to see a teardown, iFixit did an awesome teardown of one back in 2016.

IFixit World Of Warcraft HP Blade Teardown
IFixit World Of Warcraft HP Blade Teardown

These servers get thrashed. One of the big challenges with a MMORPG is saving the state of every player at every time. Each movement, itemization, skills, and so forth need to be saved. As a result, they are constantly writing to databases.

Over the years, 6-7-year-old servers were hitting the time when the TCO payback of an entire project to replace over 10,000 blades was roughly 13 months. This is similar to those folks still running Intel Xeon E5 servers today. Next month we will get the Intel Xeon 6 Sierra Forest launch and the economics are going to be similarly stark.

That TCO was, of course, minus one key component: removal of the old blades. For many years, companies decommissioning large clusters have been the target of the recycling industry. These computer recycling companies come in and remove infrastructure, but often the title of the material passes to the recycler. The recycler can then sell servers to turn into revenue. If you saw our early Dell C6100 server series, this was a great example of when Dell was still relevant in the hyper-scale market selling servers ito places like Twitter and those servers were being removed and recycled, selling at low prices.

Dell C6100 XS23-TY3 Motherboard Tray Hot Swap
Dell C6100 XS23-TY3

The HP server blades were so old that instead of recycling teams offering a few dollars per server to get the blades or decommissioning them just to be able to take and resell the old hardware, Blizzard was faced with another scenario. They were going to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly up to a million dollars to have the servers removed from the racks. That figure is not being inflation adjusted. The old servers were just not worth it on the secondary market and old blade servers can be harder to move.

As a result, the upgrade project was in limbo, until the company had an idea. The idea sounded crazy at first, as an almost funny suggestion around autographing and selling off the servers. WoW was a juggernaut of a game at the time. There were plenty of fans who valued their experience on WoW servers more than meeting a celebrity. As other scenarios were discussed at the meeting, the initially funny suggestion became more real. Or better stated, it might have been the only realistic option to keep the project on track.

Instead of selling the servers directly, the blades were pulled from global data centers. A company then produced the placards with the instance name and a message. These were then auctioned off in a charity auction for St. Jude. Many of these servers that recyclers deemed not to be worth the cost of labor to pull them from racks were sold for many times what they would be sold for on the secondary market.

Since the servers were a charitable auction, Blizzard got a tax benefit to cover the project cost of removing its old HP-AMD Opteron blades to make up for the budgeting shortfall, and fans were able to take servers home with them. What seemed like a crazy idea at a meeting ended up being a highly publicized and successful effort to close a budget gap on the server refresh.

Final Words

This was a fun story that came about simply by talking to someone wearing Blizzard IT apparel on a flight. It was a short flight, but I immediately wrote the story down afterwards. It felt like a cool behind-the-scenes story about something that I remember hearing about more than a decade ago.


  1. That was a nice blast from the past! And yes, the ifixit teardown linked to in the article is well worth reading and looking at. What I had (apparently) forgotten is just how much power the cooling fans of these server blades could pull; upwards of 80 W! That’s a significant fraction of the total power used by one of these dual Opteron blades.

  2. In 2011 I had just gotten the save the date card (and invitation to be a groomsman) at the wedding of two best friends, who had met on World of Warcraft. Then I heard about the auction. After a lot of nerve wracking eBay refreshing, I won one of the two listed for our home server, Cenarion Circle. It cost more than I would have liked, but less than the limits of my goodwill towards the newlywed couple.
    When the blade arrived in the mail, I was delighted to see the WoW logo plexiglass cover that replaced the steel lid. It attached using embedded magnets, so I popped it off. I then spend the next six months shipping it around the country in a chain amongst every member of our guild, who signed it in silver ink. I have a picture of the happy couple seeing it for the first time at their wedding and all the in-attendance guild members surrounding it.

  3. Pete, having worked in the ewaste world for a short time, there’s a reason why these old servers are referred to as “heaters!”

    Funny story to read as my current gaming system harkens back to a Blizcon custom rig from 2018, which was traded to me as ewaste many moons ago. Of course the only original parts left are the case and power supply.

  4. I got the blade for the realm my wife and I played on from this auction and gave it to her for Christmas that year. It’s prominently displayed in our home library above the Fantasy section and accompanied by a Murloc and a Tauren figurines.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.