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Blade Battle Royale

IBM and Hewlett-Packard are attacking the blade server market from opposite sides of the mountain.

IBM views this hot server segment as a value proposition that requires planning, consulting and design services. As a result, IBM Business Partners active in the enterprise have been quick to pick up the mantle. Blades solve density and manageability issues in data centers and in intense computing applications such as life sciences. Many IBM Business Partners who focus on iSeries and pSeries now report that the Intel-based xSeries is their fastest-growing server line largely because of the acceptance of IBM's BladeCenter.

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But HP, which just rolled out a new BladeSystem Division and appointed Rick Becker as its new blade czar, brands blades as best suited for the SMB market. Manageability, not density, is HP's blade mantra, and the vendor reports that 50 percent of its blade business is going to the SMB market and half of that volume is going into businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

HP said, in fact, that CDW is one of its largest blade channel partners.

The market will decide whether HP's or IBM's blade strategy is most viable. Likely there is room for both as blades become more ubiquitous. But I have to admit: HP's volume strategy disturbs me.

Why, just out of the gate, would HP declare blades a volume product? To many in the channel, volume is a euphemism for low margins. But to many end users, blades are a completely new concept, especially when you're talking about SMB customers. That means HP, IBM and other vendors that want to sell blade technology need solution providers to push the servers as a business solution. Most customers at this point won't simply start buying blade servers to replace their current stand-alone systems.

The problem for HP is that when you declare that blades are a volume product, solution providers immediately think low-margin commodity. And at this stage in the blade cycle, that's selling the technology way short.

The vendor that wins the blade battle needs solution providers as loyal allies. A low-margin, volume play isn't the way to win the hearts and minds of the channel.

CRAIG ZARLEY is Industry Editor at CRN. He can be reached via e-mail at

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