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IBM tries server approach to PC business

Big Blue is combining its BladeCenter servers with server software from VMware and Citrix Systems.

IBM sold its personal computer business to Lenovo in 2004, but Big Blue is expected to announce a product Wednesday that shows it still has some interest in the market.

The technology isn't a straight-up PC, though. Instead, it combines IBM's BladeCenter servers with VMware's ESX Server software for running multiple operating systems on one computer and Citrix Systems' software for letting people tap into programs running on a server.

The technology name also is more complicated than a simple PC: IBM Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure. But the company believes the approach will be compelling for businesses wanting to cut costs and ease management.

IBM's BladeCenter houses as many as 14 dual-processor servers in a chassis 12.25 inches tall, and Doug Balog, IBM's new vice president of BladeCenter products, said 12 to 15 separate PCs can simultaneously run on each blade.

"That would allow over 200 clients in a BladeCenter chassis," Balog said.

IBM isn't the first to try to whisk PCs from offices and desks to data centers where administrators have an easier time updating software. Start-up ClearCube started the blade PC trend in 2002, and even signed a sales deal with IBM that now has been transferred to Lenovo. Hewlett-Packard also has a blade desktop product, the Consolidated Client Infrastructure.

Using VMware, though, lets many PCs be squeezed onto each server. "There are competitive offerings that pick up the electronics of the desktop and move it to the data center, but it's still a one-to-one relationship and isn't as cost-effective in our view," Balog said.

The technology is beta testing now and should be available in the first quarter of 2006, Balog said. There's no specific product bundle available, though IBM resells VMware and Citrix products.

The VMware approach permits a server CPU to reach at 80 percent utilization, a much higher level than the average PC. And the VMware software lets a specific PC be shuttled from one computer to another if more computing resources are needed.

While the PC software runs on the blade servers, people access it using a "thin client" from a company such as Wyse or Neoware, Balog said.