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IBM Using Blades To Attack Desktop PC Market

Joseph F. Kovar
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The company on Tuesday told attendees of its PartnerWorld conference, held this week in St. Louis, that it has partnered with Devon IT to offer a new family of blades for its BladeCenter chassis that can be used with thin clients to run any PC application with the same or nearly the same performance as a standard desktop PC.

The IBM Workstation Blade is not the first time companies have looked at ways to centralize desktop PCs into the data center, but it is the first to use a new high-speed graphics processor that allows the desktop blades to operate at full speed over campus-based networks, and with a minimum hit to performance over a WAN, said Joe Makoid, president of Devon IT.

"Companies have been trying to do this for years," Makoid said. "Look at Larry Ellison's Network Computing, and thin clients. But the biggest drawback is graphics speed. We're using the power of the IBM BladeCenter with a state-of-the-art graphics processor to get the performance of a high-end workstation."

Tom Bradicich, IBM Fellow and vice president of the company's Systems and Technology Group, said that as desktop applications get more and more complex, they do not belong on the desktop. "They belong in the data center, where they can be managed for viruses, worms, heat and so on," Bradicich said.

The IBM Workstation Blade system includes three components. The HC-10 is a blade that fits into an IBM BladeCenter chassis to host the desktop PC operating system and application. The TC-10 is a thin-client-like stateless desktop workstation that connects to the HC-10 to allow the user to access the application as if he or she were using an actual workstation. Both are managed by the BladeWorks Manager software, developed by Devon IT.

In addition to managing the connection between the HC-10 and TC-10, the software also allows "hotelling," Bradicich said. With hotelling, the blade can be switched from one user to another when the first user leaves, or can be switched to be used in a server configuration when the user is not logged on. In a call center, for instance, three different users in a 24-hour period could use a single blade, he said.

IBM solution providers said that while the idea sounds good, how well the desktop blades sell is hard to determine.

"There's such an embedded culture with PCs," said Gary Hoffman, president of Hoffman Technologies, a Sacramento, Calif.-based IBM solution provider. "Someone will be sitting out there with their desktop PC saying, 'I'm a dinosaur -- I just got this, and now you want me to switch?'"

An enlightened presenter might find it possible to persuade a strong manager of a team of users to change, but individuals sitting with a pile of unfinished business will not be that easy, Hoffman said. "They're resistant to change," he said.

David Browning, executive vice president of Advanced Systems Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based IBM solution provider, said the desktop blades cannot hurt. "Most of our BladeCenter deployments are centered around server consolidation," Browning said. "If we can go further with desktop consolidation, good. But desktop infrastructure is not our play."

For solution providers that work with both server and desktop infrastructures, trying to implement a new technology like desktop blades in a BladeCenter chassis brings up a problem, Browning said.

"Servers and desktops are not handled by the same person with a customer organization," he said. "How to bring them together? Who owns it? That's an important question."

It is, indeed, said Bradicich. Actually, it is similar to a key issue faced when the first server blades were released because of the question of whether they would be handled by the server or the networking people, he said.

"One customer, Morgan Stanley, originally said they wanted to buy our blade servers," he said. "The next day, they called back and said they can't buy it because of the integrated network in the server blades and the fact that the network guy was in another city. This will be a similar issue. But desktop blades are not a new product."

Bradicich said he expects competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell to follow IBM's lead in this new market. However, he said, unlike IBM, which sold off its desktop PC operations to Lenovo, those vendors cannot move too fast for fear of cannibalizing their desktop PC business.

"This doesn't impact us, so we can move more aggressively because customers know we aren't conflicted," he said. "So there's no reason for us to hold back."

General availability of the new desktop blades is expected to be in the second half of 2007, at which time pricing will be determined, Bradicich said. Sometime next year, IBM and Devon IT hope to virtualize the graphics processor so that one blade can be used with up to eight display, or can be used to support multiple users.

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