IBM's BladeCenter SMB-Friendly Retrofit Includes Storage Consolidation

IBM says SMB-focused storage consolidation is an idea whose time has come. Its new shared storage option for BladeCenter S aims to deliver on that promise.

According to IBM Corp., SMB-friendly storage consolidation is an idea whose time has come.

In last week's BladeCenter S announcement, IBM touted a new "shared storage" feature for its SMB-friendly BladeCenter S product line. Why shared storage? In short, isn't storage -- or, rather, storage that's built into the chassis itself -- BladeCenter S' biggest selling point?

What Big Blue means by shared storage is, in fact, storage consolidation, BladeCenter-style. The new shared storage feature -- which consists of storage area network (SAN) connectivity between BladeCenter S systems -- lets customers consolidate disparate storage resources in a blade-sized form factor. IBM says it can support shared storage configurations of up to 12 TB.

It's intriguing that Big Blue is aiming this pitch squarely at SMB customers -- or almost squarely: IBM also touts BladeCenter S as an appropriate solution for branch office locations, too.

What's surprising, IBM officials say, is that SMB shops typically have a surfeit of servers -- Big Blue cites anywhere from 20 to almost 50 -- with an equivalent (and similarly distributed) storage complement. Like their bigger enterprise brethren, such shops are ripe for server consolidation -- and have been the targets of SMB pushes by both Big Blue and rival Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).

HP -- tops in blades according to both Gartner Inc. and IDC -- markets its highly successful c3000 systems to small and mid-size customers. Like IBM's BladeCenter S offering, the HP c3000 blades run on vanilla 110-volt power via standard three-prong power adapters. Enterprise blades, on the other hand, typically have three-phase power requirements. Both IBM and HP announced their respective SMB-focused blade offerings -- BladeCenter S and c3000 incarnations of their respective SMB-focused blade offerings -- last fall.

Does this mean there's a solid precedent for an SMB-centric blade push?

The term SMB is also surprisingly broad. IBM, for example, touted BladeCenter S adoption by the Harley-Davidson Motor Company -- which has more than 9,000 employees, and which had $5.7 billion in revenues last year -- as part of last week's PR push. (To be fair, Harley-Davidson says it has deployed BladeCenter S at a smaller subsidiary, Buell Motorcycle Company.)

The term "SMB" can describe a business with fewer than 100 employees or a much larger enterprise with a headcount of up to 500. "Small" is, therefore, a relative term.

Given the likely size of many so-called "small businesses," an SMB-focused, SAN-based storage consolidation strategy might not be so far-fetched.Last year, Dell Computer Corp. announced basically the same thing, touting its PowerVault MD3000i, a SAN-based array based on the iSCSI standard. (iSCSI lets SMBs build SANs on top of their existing Ethernet networks, Dell officials pointed out.) Big Blue, for its part, says SAN-based shared storage can reduce SMB storage costs between 35 to 40 percent.

IBM doesn't propose to leave SMB shops high and dry with its BladeCenter S offerings. Blades can be a tricky proposition, particularly for the uninitiated. They ship with proprietary management software designed to permit administrators to rapidly deploy, provision, virtualize, back up, or restore operating systems or application instances. To that end, IBM announced its BladeCenter S Start Now Advisor, a software tool it claims can help SMBs get their BladeCenter S systems up and running in less than 30 minutes. There's also the BladeCenter Service Advisor, a "call home" feature that alerts IBM -- or select business partners -- to system performance issues.

All of this skirts the larger issue -- i.e., the question of Big Blue's pitching a SAN-based storage consolidation strategy to SMB customers. How big is such a market?

Some industry watchers are intrigued. After all, they point out, SMB shops have experienced growing pains, too. SMB shops -- like their larger enterprise colleagues -- also need to rein in inefficiently distributed server and storage capacity. More to the point, SMB shops can get very large, so while a SAN-based shared storage feature might not seem like the most obvious -- or easiest -- way to celebrate BladeCenter S' first birthday, it's certainly a departure from the status quo.

"IBM's belated birthday present to [BladeCenter] S customers may not seem like a big deal to some small businesses. After all, what the heck will they do with a SAN?" concedes industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT. "If those companies are looking to make their IT systems as efficient and cost effective as possible, integrated shared storage is a handy tool to help achieve those ends."

King also says that the new Start Now Advisor and Service Advisor software tools should be a boon to the SMB segment. "[T]he ease-of-use features are nothing to sneeze at. Easing the [BladeCenter] S set-up process with the Start Now Advisor will be welcomed by both SMBs and enterprises with hundreds of branch stores and offices. In addition, the new BladeCenter Service Advisor should help smaller organizations enjoy levels of service typically enjoyed by larger companies," he argues.