Leader: Dell wants blade runners

And users who are sure of its enterprise credentials

And users who are sure of its enterprise credentials

A lot of users still don't consider Dell an enterprise player the way they do at least three of the Round Rock company's main competitors. For those, like us, who follow Dell's movements that's a little hard to understand. Our bet is that at Dell it also raises a few eyebrows. But we stick by the statement.

Yesterday saw the European launch of a global product and a pact with Microsoft that are the next steps in moving along that perception.

Dell has entered the blade server market, where companies such as HP (the first to enter), IBM (the market leader now), Fujitsu-Siemens and Sun play. All offer blades running Linux or Windows (not Sun, in the case of the latter - though let's not forget its ceasefire with Redmond) on an x86 architecture, quite often supplied by Intel. (Whether Dell would use AMD chips was yesterday again talked around by Dell CEO Kevin Rollins.)

The blade market is still relatively small - 2 per cent of server spending, though around 5 per cent of server shipments now in Europe, according to IDC figures - but growing in importance.

Then there's the IT systems management headache. Most people with any connection to an IT department know about it. Patching and maintaining servers takes up an inordinate amount of admin time. Cue Dell and Microsoft teaming up - above and beyond what Microsoft does now with other hardware vendors - to marry Dell's systems management software, OpenManage4, with Microsoft's software installation offering, Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003.

Executives across the industry rightly recognise too much time in IT departments is spent maintaining what's already there - around 70 per cent by many estimates. Do vendors think that by reducing that time and spend maybe users will spend more on other things, like their products? Certainly - though let's not forget spend can go elsewhere, to areas such as staffing or even back to the finance department.

So Dell has again followed its rivals into an area it now sees as mature. Interviews with some 9,000 customers told it now is the time for blades. It has also deepened its relationship with the company arguably still its main ally - and also hinted it may yet play off another ally, Intel, against a sure-footed AMD.

One user summed up the type of business this approach seems to address perfectly. A number of start-ups this publication has spoken to over the past few years have gone straight to Dell for hardware, bypassing resellers and other channel advisors. Isotrak, a UK-based expert in logistics technology, helping enable the supply-chains of organisations such as M&S, Royal Mail and Tesco, is one such organisation that jumped straight in to Dell.

Since it set up seven years ago, it has settled on Dell hardware, including the latest blades, a Microsoft platform (made up of Windows, SQL Server database and the .Net web services architecture) and Vodafone for wireless connectivity to fleets of vehicles.

The company is growing rapidly and has five IT staff exclusively looking after 250 servers which process 50 million messages per week to drivers. The company is tech-savvy but at a critical phase in its growth.

Craig Sears-Black, marketing director at Isotrak, said: "All we need [from a hardware supplier] is reliable delivery. The indirect model would add nothing to our business whatsoever."

Not every user organisation is in this position. Many will want more advice, though Dell will argue it is as well placed as anyone now to provide it.

The small steps this week, including the strong relationship with Microsoft, and the approach many users have to IT suggest there is a chance Dell can take some of the momentum it has in areas such as PCs to full-on enterprise IT. But it will be tricky. Not everyone is tech savvy, not every account greenfield and most set-ups are downright complicated.

And do we think HP, IBM, Sun et al will cede ground easily?