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Distributor Avnet Partner Solutions this week launched a blade server initiative with an eye to boosting sales of IBM blades to the upper end of the small and midsized business market.

Avnet’s blade program, called BladeCentral for IBM, is designed to give VARs and integrators a quick entrée into a fast-growing market. Included in the program are technical and sales training, demand generation and special financing, said Jack Morris, the distributor’s vice president of IBM software and xSeries.

To gain a foothold for IBM blades at end-user accounts, Tempe, Ariz.-based Avnet is providing VAR and integrator partners with a free chassis for the first blade sale a partner makes into an account.

Because blades are not interchangeable between vendors, the free chassis is meant to guarantee that subsequent blade sales into those accounts will go to the IBM brand, Morris said.

To facilitate sales, special financing arrangements are available. Customers that need financing can choose from several options that ease the burden of paying for the technology, Morris said.

For VARs and integrators, he said the blade initiative opens opportunities in a technology area that is experiencing fast growth. Avnet itself expects sales of blade servers to increase by about 50 percent this year, he said.

Analyst research company International Data Corp., based in Framingham, Mass., reported in May that blade shipments increased 68 percent in the first quarter, compared to the same period last year. IBM is the market-share leader with 39 percent, and Hewlett-Packard Co. is No. 2 with 35 percent, according to IDC.

“The enterprise adopted earlier, and now we do think there’s a play with blades in the SMB [small and midsized business] market,” Morris said. Blades, he added, offer customers a way to consolidate their data at an affordable total cost of ownership.

VARs say blades are popular with a growing number of customers because they are typically more affordable than other servers and they save space. As customers do technology refreshes, many are opting for blades for those reasons.

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Blade servers are thin, modular electronic circuit boards with one or more microprocessors and memory that are inserted into a rack with other blades.

“Customers might start with one or two blades, but they have a vision or plan for seven or eight,” Morris said. Usually, however, the entry point is four blades, he added.

Jim Carrick, CEO of Strategic Computer Solutions Inc., an IBM Premier Business Partner in Syracuse, N.Y., said Avnet’s blade initiative combines the necessary resources for his company to get into the blade market.

“We are seeing increased demand from our customers,” he said.

Avnet says the BladeCentral program will enable Strategic Computer Solutions and others to use blades to deliver various solutions that meet customer needs. Those include data consolidation, clustering and virtualization, provisioning, and application and workload, as well as Linux solutions.

The distributor also is offering specific bundled solutions configured for specific business and technical requirements, such as IBM Business Express e-business and infrastructure solutions. More bundles, including one for security, are on the way, Morris said.