IBM has launched its entry-level blade server chassis, as Techworld predicted last month.

Big Blue describes it as "a computing system designed to help smaller firms simplify the management of technology needed to operate a small business – from servers, to phone systems and antivirus applications." It could help SMBs save both money and energy.

IBM reckoned the new, six-slot BladeCenter S is the right size to sit on a desktop, plug into a standard mains socket, and manage storage and servers. It's designed to run in a typical office environment, said the company, and can integrate applications such as anti-virus/firewall, voice over IP, email, collaboration, back-up and recovery, and file and print.

Minimising IT admin is among of the BladeCenter S' key features, claimed IBM. It can be configured using wizards like a PC, and uses a management tool that enables easy select-and-click configuration. For businesses operating branch offices – such as retailers or financial institutions – IT administrators at headquarters can easily pre-configure hundreds of blade systems to operate in the same manner and ship them out the door knowing an office employee will be able to simply plug a system in and power it up, according to IBM.

BladeCenter product manager Scott Tease said that small to medium-sized businesses - in IBM-speak that's up to 1,000 employees - wanted the same benefits as bigger companies but at a lower price, since they usually only had one person managing the IT infrastructure.

Blade computers – which integrate servers, storage, networking and applications into one system – were initially designed to help large enterprises break from conventional methods of business computing that resulted in the proliferation of server “farms,” large IT staffs to manage them and wasted energy resources. IBM's pre-existing BladeCenter chassis can accept up to 14 blades.

The BladeCenter S can help reduce the 25 to 45 servers used by an average mid-sized company by up to 80 percent, eliminating the need to own and operate a data centre, said IBM. Blade server vendors claim that blades help cut energy costs because they share a power supply and other components that are rarely fully utilised in tower or rack-mounted servers. They also centralise cable management, saving space and costs, as up to six or more cables per server would otherwise be required.

IBM quoted industry analyst firm Gartner saying that mid-sized businesses run 25 to 45 servers on average to power business functions, and that about 10 of those servers are typically appliances designed to perform a single or specialised set of server functions such as storage, security and Web serving.

Integrating these functions, along with storage, into one BladeCenter system, can help businesses reduce the sprawl of physical servers and potentially reduce the numbers of IT staff needed to manage applications, reckoned Big Blue.

In recent years, blade servers sales have out-paced the rest of the server market, with the last quarterly sales figures showing over 25 percent growth, year on year. However, most of those sales have been to large enterprises. IBM said that smaller businesses could also benefit, and cited an example in the USA.

Devon Health Services, based near Philadelphia, employs 150 and processes healthcare claims. IT challenges include working with multiple medical partners that conduct file exchanges in various formats, and the management of large, time-critical volumes of data.

Devon Health had been adding servers to keep up with the company’s IT demands over the years, creating a mixed-vendor environment that included over 30 Dell and HP rack servers that in most cases ran no more than one application each. "We got in that rhythm where we were buying a new server with every new application,” said Devon Health president Charles Falcone. "One day our IT staff was in the middle of a project to upgrade a mission-critical application for our business – a re-pricing software product that handles 80 percent of the company’s workflow – when we made an alarming discovery – we had literally run out of power."

When an electrician informed Devon Health’s IT staff that the company was actually drawing more power than the circuit breaker was rated for, the team realised it was time for a new solution.

To reduce systems management complexity and address a critical shortage of energy resources, Devon Health migrated its core enterprise applications to a single IBM BladeCenter system with six blade servers. Today a staff of one IT administrator manages the company’s file server, Web server, print server, database server, CRM application and backup domain controllers, all housed in one BladeCenter system, while pursuing other technology projects to help generate revenue for the business.

"Growing businesses with constrained resources have been grappling with ways to leverage technology advances to improve their competitive advantage without increasing costs," said Alex Yost, vice president and business line executive, IBM BladeCenter. "IBM’s introduction of a purpose built BladeCenter for small offices and distributed locations will now help smaller firms get the simplification and integration that the biggest companies have been getting from blades, in a package that is optimised for their business. IBM BladeCenter is the right choice for customers looking for open, green and easy IT integration."