Hewlett-Packard has begun shipping a blade management tool that makes it easier to add and remove blades and storage to a data centre.

With Virtual Connect, announced in June 2006, an enterprise can set up its data centre network infrastructure ahead of time and move around servers and storage as needed.

Currently, enterprises deploy switches in their data centre networks to connect servers to storage appliances. They're relatively cheap, but each of those switches is one more piece of hardware on the network that administrators need to manage, said Mark Potter, vice president of HP's BladeSystem business. Another alternative is to install a "patch panel," which doesn't require any separate management but is very expensive to deploy.

Adding servers is also very time-consuming and requires the involvement of a company's server manager, network manager, storage manager and others, Potter said. What should be a 30-minute task can sometimes take hours or even days. One HP customer told Potter it once took 58 days.

"You know when they give you a number like 58 days that they've measured it and they're not happy about it," he said.

Virtual Connect is built into the data centre infrastructure when it is first created. Then new servers can be simply plugged in and turned on.

"We can wire up the infrastructure one time, physically, and basically walk away," Potter said. "Then the server admin can add, replace and change servers on the fly without ever impacting the networking admin or the storage admin."

Virtual Connect is hardware and middleware that sits between the blade server and the network switches that connect to storage. Virtual Connect for a network using Ethernet switches carries a starting list price of US$5,699. For Fibre Channel networks, it starts at $9,499.

HP has also delivered a new blade server, the ProLiant xw460c (list price: $4,329), which HP describes as the first workstation blade for the c-Class blade product line.

Virtual Connect is a unique solution to a data centre headache, said Gordon Haff, principal analyst with Illuminata.

"Virtual Connect does not eliminate [the work of configuring a network]. It still might take three or four weeks to do all that," Haff said. "But the idea is that you can basically do it once."

HP might be cheered to read new Gartner figures that show that HP is gaining on the blade leader, IBM. HP's share of the x86 platform blade market, based on revenue, rose to 33 percent in 2006 from 32 percent in 2005, while IBM's fell to 40 percent from 42 percent, said Jeffrey Hewitt, a Gartner analyst.

At the same time, the x86 blade market is growing. Global blade server revenue grew to $2.7 billion in 2006 from $2 billion in 2005 and unit shipments grew to 727,000 from 548,000 the year before, according to the Gartner report.