IBM calls PCs back from beyond the grave

IBM cast out the spirit of its PC division last year. So why are scary noises still coming from the rack?

As Halloween approaches, only the brave and foolhardy stray onto eBay. For there you will find ghosts — real, documented ghosts, "phantasms bound to glass" carefully trapped in bottles and available for purchase. Or so the seller claims: who are we to disagree?

Yet phantasms bound to glass — at the least, silicon — are key to some very serious business plans indeed. IBM is not known for its attachment to the paranormal, yet having put a stake through the heart of its PC division last year when it sold the animated corpse to Lenovo it has revived its spirit and is back in the game. With its Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure, IBM is mixing up VMWare, Citrix and its own BladeServer to create a virtual Valhalla in a rack that can contain the binary images of up to 200 poltergeist PCs.

You still need someone else's hardware to channel these to keyboard and screen, but that can be any old thin client. IBM claims — and customers tend to agree — that it's much easier to manage a virtual PC than the real thing, while for most common business uses the experience of using it is indistinguishable. There's little doubt that blade servers are fulfilling at least some of their promise, and that virtualisation is a natural partner in this.

One curious question remains: is IBM back in the PC business? Although details had not been made public at the time of writing, it would have been highly unusual if the Lenovo sale wasn't contingent on a non-competition agreement — and in the sense that you can't buy a stand-alone PC with an IBM badge on the front, that remains the state of play. But sit a user at a desk and ask them whether the Windows session in front of them is running on a Lenovo desktop or an IBM virtual PC, and it's by no means certain they'll know the difference — or care.

As Lenovo prepares to lay siege to the low-cost PC market, we'll understand if it starts to wonder: trick or treat?