HP is to offer small businesses a programme to assess how their IT systems might benefit from the technology.

From next month, HP is offering an assessment service that diagnoses a company's computer infrastructure and then draws up a proposal about how virtualsation could be implemented.

Virtualisation technology is designed to manage a company's IT infrastructure holistically. Servers can be subdivided into multiple "virtual machines" that can simultaneously run different applications. Server workload can be more easily moved from one physical or virtual machine to another as needed. Virtualisation is a new area of competition in the technology industry as vendors tout it as a way to control costs, server sprawl and energy use - and to position themselves against rivals.

Most virtualisation projects are done in large enterprises, where a company like HP would assign its own dedicated sales force, consultants and engineers to a project. But HP plans to work through channel partners to cater to smaller businesses, said Nick van der Zweep, director of virtualisation for HP.

"The channels who cover more of our mid-market, small-to-medium businesses, these (customers) maybe haven't done a virtualisation project and so they need some assistance to do the first one," van der Zweep said. "Each of our channel partners tend to be regional and we need to help them get up to speed on virtualisation."

IBM claims the high ground in this rivalry, because it has been building virtualisation capabilities into its mainframe computers for more than 30 years.

"HP is clearly in catch-up mode," said Kevin Leahy, director of virtualisation for IBM.

HP's van der Zweep acknowledged IBM's pioneering the technology but says IBM was slow to move beyond the mainframe.

"IBM put a lot of technology onto their mainframes to make them shareable," he said. "But we at HP brought virtualisation out for our Unix (server) systems and midrange systems well before IBM took it off the mainframe."