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Blade servers profitable pawn in battle for midmarket

New SMB blade products from HP and IBM have little to differentiate them. It's the channel partners that will set these products apart, experts say.

Suddenly, everyone wants to sell blades to the midmarket.

I think blades have been around long enough now that they're on the same level.
Eric Johnson
IT project managerCatholic Charities of Boston
Blade servers, once the high-density computing "sports car" that only enterprises could afford to drive into their data centers, are now widely available to medium-sized businesses that have traditionally tucked their IT infrastructure into a server closet.

Both IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. are bringing blade server technology to the midmarket this quarter with new products that the lower end of the midmarket can afford. HP announced the general availability of its BladeSystem c3000 "Shorty" product earlier this month. IBM's BladeCenter S product will be available in December.

"They say they're pretty much squarely going after SMBs, but these are more midsized products, a few hundred-person company, as opposed to a 50-person organization," said Clay Ryder, president of The Sageza Group Inc., a Union City, Calif.-based research firm. "With blades in particular, the major vendors have started to see these really as a way to rejuvenate their midmarket sales. These solutions are compact, they run off standard electric power, and nothing fancy is required in the room where it's plugged in."

Both products have some pretty similar basic features. They both can plug into a standard wall socket. They both can run in an office environment without all the typical cooling technology found in data centers. IBM's product fits up to six blades. The HP product fits up to four full-height blades or eight half-height blades.

The products are competitively priced against each other. The HP system starts around $4,299. The IBM BladeCenter S is priced around $2,599.

Standard stuff

Technologically speaking, the two products are also pretty similar. Analysts say both low-end blade products are good solutions. When asked to describe what differentiates the two, they were hard-pressed to give examples.

"They're roughly comparable," Ryder said. "You look at things like switches, ports -- at that level you're talking about standard, basic stuff."

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst and IT advisor at Nashua, N.H.-based research firm Illuminata Inc., said he didn't see many differences between the two products.

Instead, he said IBM and HP will differentiate themselves based on how they prepare their channel partners for these products.

"Like any other system choice, very typically a midmarket firm is probably going to be engaging through a regional system integrator or through an ISV [independent software vendor] of some sort," Haff said. "It's going to be more likely that the choice will be determined in no small part by the partners they're engaging with as opposed to sitting down and figuring out which product is best."

Eric Johnson, IT project manager at Catholic Charities of Boston, said his organization considered blade products from both IBM and HP more than a year ago when it was looking to consolidate its menagerie of old rack servers in its data center into blades.

His organization did work with a local value-added reseller (VAR), but the channel didn't determine which blade vendor he chose. In the end Catholic Charities installed two HP BladeSystem c7000 16-unit blade chassis and 25 Intel dual-core processor blades. He said he chose HP because it was cheaper than what IBM had on the market at the time. Now with HP's BladeSystem c3000 and IBM's BladeCenter S, price is pretty much a wash for SMBs.

And Johnson agreed with the analysts who asserted that the technologies are pretty similar.

"We looked at a lot of different things. We were looking at cost, features, etc.," Johnson said. "They're very similar products. I think blades have been around long enough now that they're on the same level."

Still, Ryder said midsized firms will probably be swayed by channel partners when trying to decide between HP or IBM blades.

"The partner with whom the end user organization has a relationship is going to have a fair amount of influence over whether they purchase HP or IBM for a given problem," Ryder said.

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He said both IBM and HP have strong channel programs for these new blade products. However, Haff said HP has the upper hand on the channel.

"They've put a very deliberate focus on channel engagement," Haff said. "Now IBM has a predominantly strong medium-sized business sales force and channel program, but historically those have been more oriented around System i than blades. I don't think, in general, they have done as much to roll out to the channel. IBM is clearly interested in changing that. They're starting to make organizational changes."

Ryder added, "They're both very competitive, which is good for that par of the market."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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