HP Sharpens Its Blade Focus, Targets SMBs

What’s as thin as a pizza box, doesn’t consume much power or require a web of cables, handles all your server needs, and can grow as your business grows?

Blade servers, of course. You may have known that, but what you may not know is blades aren’t just for large enterprises looking to consolidate hundreds of servers. In fact, computer heavyweights are targeting small and mid-sized businesses big-time with these ultra thin servers that slide into a single, compact chassis.

Looking to spread the word about the benefits of blade servers, HP today announced an expansion of its Smart Office initiative for SMBs. The move is designed to provide small businesses with education, services, marketing tools and guidance related to blade server technology.

But are small businesses really ready to buy into blades? John Enck, vice president of server strategies at Gartner, said that “blade products need to change to address the SMB market.” He added that the small business market will require a smaller chassis that will house fewer blades and cost less. “But assuming the products change, blades offer an SMB a ‘data center in a box’ approach to computing. They can easily manage all of the server functions through a common console plus they let you expand your environment by adding blades as needed,” he said.

HP appears to be making the adjustments Enck suggests. HP BladeSystem servers are powered by either one, two or four Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron processors for either Windows or Linux deployments. As part of the Blades for Business program, which will launch on May 2, HP will offer a new 1U power supply for single HP BladeSystem enclosures designed especially for smaller implementations.

HP said that ballpark figure for a small business setup, which would include the chassis, power supply, basic networking and five servers is around $12,000. A blade server configuration such as that can be right for businesses with as few as 50 employees, Vince Gayman, director of WorldWide SMB Product Programs at HP, said. However, he added, companies in the 100-200 employee range are more likely starting points for blades.

More than a new product, HP’s announcement represents an increased market focus. “HP is really targeting at the program level,” Gayman said. While, to date, blade servers have typically been targeted at larger enterprises and data centers, “this program aggressively targets the SMB market,” he said. “It builds awareness and a comfort level with blades,” he said.

In addition to offering information on its Web site and providing consulting and integration services, Gayman said HP will soon take its message to the streets with road shows that will offer hands-on demonstrations of how blade server technology can help SMBs solve business problems.

It’s not as if the SMB market is foreign territory for blades. In fact, Gayman said that 40 to 50 percent of HP’s blade sales already go to SMBs. However, customers may have been “more subsections of the SMB market” such as service providers and companies that need to take advantage of high-performance computing, Gayman said.

HP BladeSytem

HP Blade Enclosure
Blade servers (top) are thin alternatives to typical servers and let you consolidate your infrastructure. Several blades share power and cables through a single enclosure (bottom).

The goal now is to take blades more mainstream, he said, and expand to commercial segments and companies that are looking to consolidate and standardize their server infrastructure.

CRM, database, business applications and collaboration products are well-suited for blade servers, Gayman said, because they share information and need to be scalable. Financial services and healthcare are two industries likely to consider blade servers, he added.

Big Blue on Blades
HP’s program to push blades more aggressively at SMBs follows a similar move by IBM last fall. In October, Big Blue unveiled a modified, SMB-friendly version of the BladeCenter Chassis, a 7U, 14-blade system.

Also, last fall, IBM also announced Business-in-a-Box bundles for Windows and Linux. These turnkey offerings are designed to handle basic server functions (i.e., file, print and e-mail) as well server, storage and networking integration issues. To date, interest in the Linux- and Windows-in-a-box offerings have been about equal, according to Tim Dougherty, director of IBM eServer BladeCenter.

So which of these two computer giants lead the race to infiltrate the SMB market with blades?
“It’s too close to call,” according to Gartner’s Enck. “IBM gained both a market and technology lead on HP in 2004, but HP is catching up in 2005.”

Like HP, IBM also reports that small businesses are already big on blades. Dougherty said that 30 percent of IBM’s blade server sales go into SMBs and describes blades as the fastest server segment in Big Blue’s history.

Dougherty said that if your business has a “density of servers,” it’s a prime candidate for blades. “If you are buying only one or two servers every few years, it probably doesn’t make sense.”
He added that financial services, life sciences or companies that use IT as a competitive advantage are typical customers. Also, small businesses that deal with large amounts of digital content or have sophisticated rendering requirements (such as game publishers) are prime candidates.

The Web, Dougherty said, has forced companies to have multiple servers, and blade technology is a way to consolidate those servers. Blades are a logical move for companies that are rebuilding their network or undertaking a new project, as well as for businesses that are just eager to simplify their infrastructure, he said, because moving to a blade system eliminates 83 percent of cables.

On the Edge of Blade Acceptance
Are blades for every small or mid-sized business? Probably not yet, but the appeal is growing. “The alternative is to cram multiple functions into a single server box using technology like Microsoft Small Business Server or going uptown and using virtualization technology such as VMWare or Microsoft Virtual Server,” said Enck. “I don’t think blades make these approaches obsolete, but they do provide an interesting alternative.”

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com’s Small Business Channel and EarthWeb’s Networking & Communications Channel.

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