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IBM targets small firms with sized-down, affordable blade servers

Some vendors have offered blade servers to the midmarket, but with BladeCenter S, IBM has developed blade technology that small businesses can afford and support.

Small businesses traditionally locked out of buying blade servers because of cost may now be able to buy one -- if they want to.

IBM is making available a blade server that is better suited to a small company's size and budget than anything previously on the market.

"This is really geared toward the smaller end of the market," said Clay Ryder, president of Union City, Calif.-based analyst firm The Sageza Group Inc. "If you look at SMBs, particularly on the smaller side, most blade solutions out there have been larger than most smaller businesses can take advantage of with the chassis, the blades, the interconnects. If they only need a couple blades, all the other overhead is cost-prohibitive."

IBM announced that BladeCenter S will be available in the fourth quarter of this year. The system is based on a chassis small enough to sit on a desk that holds up to six blade servers. It can plug into a standard 110-volt wall socket, a boon to small IT shops that are dealing with power capacity problems. The BladeCenter S comes with a "setup wizard" that simplifies the process of establishing network and storage connections.

The product also comes with a variety of pre-installed infrastructure applications that small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can chose from, such as antivirus, firewall, Voice over Internet Protocol, email, collaboration, backup and recovery and file and print applications.

"We didn't look at blades as something we could afford," said Charles Falcone, president of Devon Health Services Inc., a preferred provider organization (PPO) based in King of Prussia, Pa. "We had never really considered them as an option. I think it was the price point and the understanding that they really weren't appropriate for small businesses."

Falcone, whose PPO has 130 employees, has been using BladeCenter S in beta since earlier this year. Prior to that, his data center was at capacity and his company couldn't grow.

"We had a little over 30 servers, primarily HP and Dell servers, all running different applications, housing data, etc.," Falcone said. "Six blades will accommodate everything that we had on those servers. The original motivation behind the switch was power constraints. We had exceeded the power coming into the building and our backup generator was maxed out. We could not put any more servers into our data center. We needed to find a new solution."

Falcone said working with BladeCenter has solved his power capacity problem and also simplified his environment.

"It's much easier to use," he said. "You're going from 30 individual servers all over the place, trying to support each of these units. Identifying problems, trying to find which unit is having a problem, versus having six blade servers in one small rack. It condenses all the support needs. So now we've got help desk guys looking for things to do. We're able to redeploy them to other projects that were previously put on the back burner because they were spending their time fixing problems and supporting servers. It's a clean solution and we're able to do more on the business side with respect to growing the company."

Charles King, principal analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, said other blade vendors, such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., are selling blade servers aimed at the SMB market, but those products are still too high-end for smaller businesses.

"This [BladeCenter S] is the first blade-based solution really aimed at small businesses," King said. "HP and Sun are focused more toward the midmarket."

Although the IBM product will work very well for smaller businesses, King said they might be slow to adopt it.

The original motivation behind the switch was power constraints. We could not put any more servers into our data center.

Charles Falcone, president, Devon Health

"Certainly a lot of small businesses really take a tactical, 'whatever is cheapest in this billing cycle' approach to buying servers," King said. "And blades are very often priced at a premium. Some of the typical strategies that vendors have been using to sell blades -- server consolidation, squeezing additional computing power into smaller and smaller footprints -- those are issues that don't really concern most small businesses."

Small businesses that want to integrate and simplify their infrastructure will see the appeal, however. King said small businesses that keep buying servers and storage piecemeal and linking everything together with a "nest of wires" will find their infrastructure harder and harder to deal with.

"What IBM aims to do is take the pain out of server integration and storage integration," King said.

Small businesses -- those suffering all the problems inherent in lots of distributed systems -- are the ones looking to deploy blade servers, he added. But for a larger part of the [small business] market that sees blades as just another way to do rack servers, there needs to be education.

"Blades aren't just another replacement for rack servers," King said. "It's a different way for doing computing solutions. They're going to be taught and educated."

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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