Category Archives: Business of IT

Choosing an Email Architecture: Internal or Hosted

If you talk to email specialists what you seem to find, in my small, anecdotal survey of the market, is that half of all of these professionals will tell you to simply install email locally, normally Microsoft Exchange, and the other half will simply tell you to go with a hosted (a.k.a. Software-as-a-Service / SaaS or “in the cloud”) service, most often Google Apps, but email is not such a simple architectural component that it should be distilled to trite answers.  Email is one of the most important components of your business’ communications infrastructure, often surpassing telephony, and choosing the right delivery methodology for your company is critical for your long term success.

We will start by considering some basic factors in email hosting.  Email systems require a good deal of bandwidth, quite a significant amount of storage, high reliability, careful management and significant security consideration.

Bandwidth is the first area to consider.  Every email sent and received must travel between the end user and the email server as well as between the email server itself and the outside world in the case of email destined externally.  In small businesses nearly all email is destined to leave the company network to go to clients, customers, vendors, etc.  In larger enterprises email use changes and as we approach the Fortune 100 email shifts from being almost exclusively a tool for communicating with people outside the organization to being a platform primarily used for internal communications.

This shift in how email itself is used is a very important factor in deciding how to deploy email services.  If email is used almost exclusively internally for intra-staff communications then this will lend itself very well to hosting email systems in-house to increase security and improve WAN bandwidth utilization.  The caveat here being, of course, that a highly distributed company of any size would not keep this traffic on a LAN network and so should be treated as if the email usage is external regardless of whether or not it is intra-staff.  Small companies with communications happening primarily with external users will find better utilization in a hosted service.

Storage is actually often a smaller factor in email architecture decision making than it may at first appear that it should be.  Traditionally email’s storage requirements made a compelling argument for hosting internally due to the cost benefit of keeping large storage, especially that used for archival needs, local.  Recently, large hosted email vendors such as Rackspace and Google Apps have brought the price of online, archival email storage so low that, in many cases, it may actually be more cost effective to utilize hosted storage rather than local storage or, at least, the cost is at parity.  Even long term archival storage can be had very cost effectively in a hosted solution today.

Reliability is a rather complex subject.  Email is critical to any organization.  If an email system goes down many companies simply grind to a halt.  In some cases, the company effectively shuts down when email stops flowing.  Not only do employees stop communicating with each other but customers, vendors, suppliers and others see the company as being offline at best and out of business at worst.  Interrupting communications with the outside world can represent immediate and serious financial impact to almost any business.

Hosted email has the obvious advantage of being hosted in a large, commercial datacenter with redundancy at every level (assuming a top tier vendor) from hardware to storage to networking to power to support.  Hosting email in house requires a business to determine the level of redundancy that is most cost effective given the business’ ability to withstand email downtime and is generally an exercise in compromises – how much reliability can a company do without given the cost necessary to provide it.

Some companies will opt to host email servers at a colocation facility which will provide them with many redundant components but to meet the features of a Rackspace or Google level offering, multiple datacenters would likely be needed.  Colocation is a halfway option providing the technical features of hosted options with the management and flexibility of in-house email systems.

A more common scenario, though, is for companies to host a single email server completely within their walls relying on their internal power, hardware and network connection.  In a scenario like this a company must either take extreme measures to ensure uptime – such as hosting a completely redundant site at immense cost – or front-ending their entire email infrastructure with a reliable online spooling service such as Postini, MessageLabs or MXLogic.  The cost of such services, while critical for the reliability most companies need, is often equal to or even greater than complete email hosting options.  This spooling service cost will likely add an ongoing, scaling cost that will make fully hosted email services always a less expensive option than in-house hosting.

Management cost is very difficult to determine but requires attention.  A fully hosted solution requires relatively little technical knowledge.  Time to manage is low and the skill level necessary to do so is relatively low.  With an in-house solution your company must supply infrastructure, networking, security, system and email skills.  Depending on your needs and your available staff this may be part time for a single professional or it may require multiple FTEs or even outside consultants.  The total time necessary to manage an in-house email system will vary dramatically and is often very hard to calculate do the complex nature of the situation but, at a minimum, it is orders of magnitude greater than a hosted solution.

Security is the final significant consideration.  Beyond traditional system-level security email requires spam filtering.  Handling spam can be done in many ways: in software on the email server, on an appliance located on the local network, farmed out to a spam filtering service or left to the hosted email solution provider.  Spam filtering, if handled internally, is seldom a set and forget service but one that requires regular attention and generally extra cost in licensing and management.

After looking at these main considerations every company should sit down, crunch the numbers, and determine which solution makes the most sense for them on an individual level.  Often it is necessary to use a spreadsheet and play with several scenarios to see what each solution will cost both up front and over time.  This, combined with a valuation of features and their applicability to the company, will be critical in determining the appropriateness of each option.

The secret weapons of the in-house solution are features, integration and flexibility.  In-house email options can be extended or modified to offer exactly the feature set that the organization requires – sometimes at additional cost.  A perfect example of this is Zimbra’s instant messaging integration which can be a significant value-add for an email platform.  This has to be considered in addition to raw cost.  Integration with existing internal authentication mechanisms can be an important factor as well.

In my own experience and cost calculations, hosted solutions represent the vast majority of appropriate solutions in the SMB space due to raw economics while large and enterprise class customers will find insurmountable benefits from the flexibility and internal communications advantages of in-house solutions.  Small businesses struggle mostly with cost while large business struggle primarily with the communications complexity of their scale.  Large businesses also get the best value from in-house solutions due to “professional density” – the inverse number of IT professionals whose time is wasted due to corporate scale inefficiencies.

Today, whether a business chooses to host their own email or to receive email as a service, there are many options from which to choose even once a basic architecture is chosen.  Traditionally only a few in-house options such as MS Exchange and Lotus Notes would be considered but new alternatives such as Zimbra (recently acquired by VMWare,) Scalix and Kerio are expanding the landscape with lower costs, new deployment options and aggressive feature sets.  Hosting’s relative newcomer, and overnight industry heavyweight, Rackspace is drawing a lot of attention with their new email offerings which more closely mimic traditional in-house offerings while Google continues to get attention with their unique GMail services.  I expect to see the hosted email space continue to become more competitive with new integration features being a key focus.

Every business is unique and the whole of the factors must be considered.  Using a combination of business and IT skills is necessary to evaluate the available options and opportunities and no one discipline should be making these decisions in isolation.  This is a perfect example of where IT managers must understand the economics of the business in addition to the technological aspects of the solution.

In House Email for Small Businesses

In small businesses the primary concern with email is cost.  Email is a commodity and especially in smaller shops the biggest differentiating factor between email products and vendors is cost.  In larger companies factors beyond cost begin to come into play more significantly such as directory services, system integration, push email, extended client support, collaboration tools, presence and more.

Surprisingly, when small businesses decide to bring their email in-house they seem to immediately turn to Microsoft Exchange.  Now I don’t want to belittle Exchange’s place in the market.  Exchange is an extremely robust and feature rich product that has earned its reputation as the go-to enterprise collaboration and messaging server.  In the last decade Exchange came seemingly from nowhere to completely dominate the large business email market.  People simply assume that you run Exchange in the Fortune 500 and, for the most part, they are correct.

The features for which Exchange is best known, however, are not features often critical or even useful to small businesses.  In actuality, the weight of Exchange – necessary to support so many great big-business features – can make it unwieldy for small businesses – even for those businesses with the financial and technological resources to support it.  Exchange focuses on collaboration and internal team communications.

Exchange brings with it many burdens.  The first being cost, up front purchasing, licensing and ongoing support.  Up front costs of Exchange include the Exchange email server purchase plus the licenses necessary for the Windows Servers – yes, that is multiple servers – on which it runs.  (Yes, you can mitigate some of this cost by purchasing Microsoft’s Small Business Server which integrates these components together but extra costs remain and flexibility is lost.)  Licensing costs for Exchange include needed Windows Server CALs and Exchange Email CALs for every user, and in some case fictional user accounts, who will need to access the system.  Ongoing support cost comes from the extra complexity arising from Exchange’s complex feature set and deployment architecture.

The second set of burdens with Exchange comes from the user interface, namely Outlook.  Now technically Exchange requires no additional user interface as Outlook Web Access, or OWA, is included for free and is a very functional web interface for email.  This would be fine if all of Exchange’s functionality was exposed through OWA, but this is not the case, so this is often nothing more than a decent fall-back solution for remote users who are away from their corporate laptops.  To really achieve the benefits of Exchange a company needs to invest in Microsoft Outlook which is a very robust and powerful email and collaboration platform but also an expensive one.  The per-user cost of Outlook can be quite significant when added to the per user costs already existing from the Exchange licensing.

The third set of burdens comes from the overhead of managing such a complex and powerful beast as Exchange.  Exchange is no simple system and, when secured according to best practices, spans multiple physical servers and operates in multiple roles.  Exchange system administration is considered its own discipline within IT or, at least, a Windows Server specialty.  Qualified Exchange admins are costly and in-demand from big business.  Small businesses looking to acquire good Exchange talent will either be paying top dollar, hiring consultants or attempting to make do with less experienced staff – a potential disaster on such a critical and publicly exposed system.  In addition to managing the Exchange system itself the staff will also need to contend with managing the deployment and maintenance of the Outlook clients which, while not complicated, does increase the burden on the IT department compared to other solutions.

More potential cost comes from the need to supply anti-virus technologies and anti-spam technologies to support the Exchange installation.  It would be unfair to mention AV and AS technologies in relation to Exchange without pointing out that any in-house email system will absolutely need these technologies as well – these costs are certainly not unique to Exchange.  However, the ecosystem surrounding Exchange has a very strong tendency to encourage the use of expensive, commercial third party tools to meet these needs.  Outside of Exchange, AV and AS technologies are often included with the email packages and no further purchases are needed.

Vying for attention in the Exchange-alternative space are open source entries Zimbra and Scalix as well as several commercial products such as IBM’s Lotus Notes, Novell’s Groupwise, Open-Xchange and Kerio’s MailServer.  Of these, Lotus Notes and Groupwise target, primarily, the large business space bringing their own set of complex collaboration functionality and cost.  The other four, Zimbra, Scalix, Open-Xchange and Kerio MailServer, focus primarily on the small business space and bring leaner, more targeted solutions that will more likely fit the profile desired for a majority of small businesses who are looking to bring their email solution in-house.

Over the last few years Zimbra especially has been in the news with their advanced web interface and early sale to Yahoo! and very recent acquisition by VMWare.  Zimbra has led, at least in the media, the charge of alternative vendors looking to open the in-house email market.  What makes these products stand out is that they deliver the bulk of Exchange’s enterprise level features, including calendaring and other important corporate applications, but do so either for free or at very competitive prices and through robust web interfaces removing the need for a local fat client like Outlook (but while maintaining the option.)

Zimbra and Scalix truly stand out as ideal candidates for the majority of small businesses looking to keep their email in-house.  Both Zimbra and Scalix offer a wide range of functionality, robust AJAX-based web interface, large commercial installation bases, broad industry support and offer the paid option of full vendor support.  But the biggest benefit for many small businesses is that these packages are available in completely free editions allowing an SMB on a budget to rely completely upon their internal IT department or their IT vendor for support rather than buying expensive, per-user email system licenses.

In addition to being free themselves, Zimbra and Scalix offer a range of deployment scenarios including Red Hat Linux, and its free alternative CentOS Linux, as well as Novell’s Suse Linux. By being available on these platforms these vendors again lower the cost of deploying their solutions as no Windows Server license is required to support them.  This is a large potential cost savings over Exchange again as Exchange requires not one but at least two Windows Server licenses on which to run.  Linux also brings some cost and performance advantages in the virtualization space with more and more varied virtualization options compared to most other platforms.

Caveats exist, of course.  Many shops are wary when looking at non-Microsoft solutions.  A lack of skilled Linux technicians in the SMB space is of real concern.  Windows Admins are abundant and it is a rare shop who would need to even seek one out let alone fail to find one capable of supporting their systems.  While Linux Admins are hardly found by swinging cats, they are widely available and tend to be on average, in my opinion,  more skilled – if only because there is a smaller, more senior pool of people from whom to draw talent.  This helps to balance the equation making Linux support not nearly as scary as it may seem like it will be for small businesses, but it does mean that most SMBs will have to look to more experienced IT consulting firms to assist them – which can bring long term cost benefits as well.

Many users are addicted to the functionality and interfaces of Exchange.  This can be a significant factor in deciding to try an alternative product.  Once workers have become accustomed to their existing workflows and processes, changing them by replacing their email server architecture can be rather disruptive.  Exchange offers quite an extensive array of functionality and users who are using those functions, not handled by competing products, will not likely be pleased losing those features, even if there are alternatives available.  So knowing your userbase and what features are being used is important.  Many companies never touch these features and can migrate easily.

Zimbra and Scalix bring their own features, of course.  One of the best being Zimbra’s built-in instant messaging system and presence system built using the standard XMPP protocol.  Putting secure instant messaging directly into the email interface is a huge win for Zimbra and a significant value-add over the status quo.

Obviously the ideal time to consider an alternative email product is at the very beginning when email is first being deployed or when a migration from another system is already underway.  But even companies with existing email systems can seek cost benefits by moving to a less costly system with savings being recouped over a longer period of time and more work necessary to train users.

Small businesses should look first to products like Zimbra and Scalix as the de facto choice for their environments and heavier, more expensive products like Microsoft Exchange should be considered a “special case” choice that requires careful cost analysis and justification.  Far too many SMB IT departments are picking the expensive route without being required to justify their actions.  If more small businesses were diligent about monitoring their IT spending they would likely find many places where their money is not only being spent somewhat liberally but sometimes even for features that they cannot use at all and sometimes on systems that carry many long term support costs as well.

The SMB IT and Vendor Relationship Dilemma

When most people compare enterprise IT and the small business IT markets they generally think about size and scale.  Enterprise environments are huge and small business IT often consists of just one or a few IT professionals holding a company together.  The differences between these two classes of environments are much deeper than just size.  Thinking of the small and medium business market as being small-scaled enterprises is a great way to misunderstand what this market is all about.   There are fundamental behavioral differences between these organizational types and I would put forth that this behavior is likely a far better determinant between what constitutes a small or medium business and what constitutes an enterprise business from an IT perspective.

One of the places in which this difference in behavior is most visible is in vendor relationships.  In the enterprise space, as well as in large businesses, vendors act very much as a partner with the corporate IT department.  Often vendors will have dedicated representatives who spend some or possibly all of their time at the customer site and are available to answer questions, make contact with support, provide input and guidance – whatever is needed by the IT department as it relates to that vendor’s products and in some rare cases even outside of the scope of the vendor’s own products.  In exchange the vendor has nearly constant access to the “ears” of IT and management in order to inform them and to sway their opinion in favor of said vendor’s products.  This also gives the vendor direct access, in many cases, to the “on the ground” IT people who are using their products and providing them with critical, non-management feedback.

In many ways this relationship causes “the conversation” between the vendor and the “market”, as proposed by Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger in their groundbreaking 1999 tome “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, to take place in-person, in real-time in a way that is very traditional and effective.  When the company wants product information it simply contacts its vendor representative and that rep will provide samples, get documentation, give a presentation, organize training sessions, obtain roadmaps and more.  If the products do not meet the company’s needs the feedback is immediate and meaningful.  The relationship is symbiotic and everyone gains from the tight communication channel that is created between the enterprise IT department and their vendors.

The small business market sees none of this.  There are many reasons for this.  The scale on which the SMB IT department operates does not allow a vendor to dedicate a sales resource, let alone a technical resource, to a single client.  This one, simple difference breaks the communication channel leaving SMB IT departments in a far different position than their enterprise counterparts.  Any conversation held between an SMB IT manager and a vendor is an ad-hoc, temporary conversation.  Vendors do not get to know their clients.  They don’t have a deep understanding of their business.  They don’t see their clients as individuals but as a pool of consumers more akin to the standard, personal consumer market than to the enterprise where each customer is well known and appreciated individually.

The differences in interaction are not solely from the vendor’s perspective.  In the enterprise the IT department typically has resources with time to dedicate to interacting with vendor representatives.  Technical support roles such as server administrators may work directly with sales and engineering resources for support issues and purchasing recommendations while architectural professionals may use vendor representatives to assist in capacity planning, system design or to establish performance metrics.  In the SMB there do not exist these dedicated internal roles and the available IT resources are often overworked and spread too thinly between many different tasks leaving little or no available time to focus on single issues such as these even if the vendors were to provide such resources.  Enterprise departments often manage to even allow regular, “in the trenches” technical staff to attend sales luncheons and other vendor-sponsored events only loosely tied to their job functions.  In the SMB space this is all but unheard of.

Another key difference between the SMB and enterprise markets is in the way that they purchase for IT.  Enterprises generally view their purchasing process in terms of services.  These may include warranty services, datacenter management, software customization, hardware leases, software customization, etc.  The small business market generally sees purchasing in terms of products – either hardware or software.  Small businesses think in terms of buying desktops, monitors, servers, software licenses, etc.  Small businesses purchase the same whether buying directly from their vendor, from the channel or from the local store.  The transactions are very simple.  Enterprises think of a server in terms of its monthly support cost and total lifespan while SMBs simply see a price tag.  This does not mean that SMBs never purchases services – only that they do so typically in a very up-front, set price sort of way although they typically purchase far fewer services than do enterprise IT departments.

Enterprise IT environments have the distinct advantage of large scale peer interaction both internally and externally.  IT professionals working in large environments are constantly learning about new products, technologies and techniques from their counterparts within their own organization as well as from peers in competing organizations in their market verticals.   This gives enterprise staff an advantage in working with their vendors because they see how these vendors interact with their peers locally and elsewhere and get feedback on how other vendors in competing areas work with their clients.  This creates a competitive market for vendors based on their level of service to their clients.  In small and medium business there is very little insight into these relationships at other, similar companies.  SMBs naturally do not get interaction with a direct peer group.  At best they can hope for peer support groups for organizations of similar size, but even that is extremely rare.  Vendor relationships with the SMB market are very much isolated from peer review and market pressures.

SMB IT professionals seldom get a chance to attend industry events like their enterprise counterparts either.  They often do attend some but few by comparison.  This provides fewer opportunities for SMBs to learn about vendors with whom they do not already have a relationship.  This is very beneficial to big vendors like HP, Dell, IBM and Microsoft who need no introduction to any IT professional, but smaller vendors, new vendors and niche vendors will often find it hard to make SMBs aware of their existence let alone find an opportunity to discuss their products and services directly with them.  Making connections between SMBs and vendors capable of meeting their needs is a significant challenge in most cases.

SMBs also suffer from not having industry publications and other vertical resources available to them in most cases.  SMB IT managers may use general resources from the IT field such as technology publications and online magazines to investigate what others in their peer group are doing, but targeted materials designed specifically for their technology needs are rare if not non-existent.

Another difference in how SMB and enterprise IT departments behave is in their driving force behind purchasing.  Enterprise customers typically purchase products strategically.  This purchasing may be driven by a desire for datacenter consolidation, power reduction, features, easing administrative burdens, market pricing advantages and more.  Careful cost analysis will often cause them to buy opportunistically and a tightly coupled vendor relationship helps to enable this.  SMBs, on the contrary, are typically tactical (demand-driven.)  They purchase new products when the old are no longer serviceable, no longer meeting demand, no longer supported or additional capacity is needed.  They will seldom buy when market pressures make purchasing most advantageous but will do so quite suddenly with relatively little research leading up to the point of spending.

The SMB market is very likely to be keenly aware of the bottom line of any purchase.  This seems obvious but in the enterprise space there is normally much more room for a technical specialist to ask for features that carry extra cost because they simply feel confident that they will be beneficial.  Enterprises are often more likely to trust the hunches of their technical staff and to pay for “soft benefits” that are not easily quantifiable.  SMBs will almost always look at the bottom line and if a feature does not meet a clear requirement or provide a rather certain return on investment then they will typically opt for the lower priced option.

The final difference that I would like to address is in how prices are determined.  Enterprise customers typically negotiate a blanket discount rate that applies to everything that they purchase from their vendor.  Getting pricing on new products or price comparing many products is easy.  Very easy.  Pricing for the enterprise is quite transparent making it very simple to do cost analysis on one solution over another.

In the SMB market prices are generally negotiated on a purchase by purchase basis.  Because of this SMB IT departments generally have only a very general idea of the price differences between two different solutions – especially if those products come from two different vendors.  Gathering enough data to do a large cost analysis study is both time prohibitive and ineffectual as prices continuously change and vendors will change discounts regularly based on other factors and behaviors.  SMB IT managers cannot simply go to a single web site and look up many different discounted prices and do a quick comparison of many different products giving them a strategic disadvantage over their enterprise counterparts.

This leaves us with a significant challenge.  Now that we see why small and medium businesses are fundamentally and behaviorally different than large enterprise businesses we have the obvious question of “how are vendors and SMB customers going to overcome their natural barriers?”

To some degree there is no simple answer.  Both vendors and small business IT managers need to be aware of how vendors and their customers behave and think so that they can begin moving toward each other in a meaningful way, but this is only the first step.

Vendors need to have dedicated small and medium business representatives who specialize in the needs of this market.  These need to be professionals who have truly studied the market and understand how very small and moderately small businesses behave, what products are generally in use, what their architectures normally look like and more.  Vendors often think that SMB IT managers spend their day thinking about ERP, CRM, rapid disaster recovery planning and datacenter consolidation problems as do enterprise CIOs but, in fact, most are concerned with desktop management, virtualization, basic security and maybe even purchasing their very first server!  Vendors need empathy with the small business market in order to service it well.  Even vendors with amazing products that are perfect for this market often fail to inform their potential customers on when these products may make sense for them or may lack the ability to support them in the configurations that make the most sense.

Most importantly vendors need to find a way to join the conversation (as put forth in “The Cluetrain Manifesto”). In the enterprise space the conversation takes place inside the organization as well as in peer groups and conferences.  It is everywhere and finding it is simple.  Small businesses struggle with joining the conversation themselves – mostly because they cannot always find it, but it is there.

A perfect example of where this conversation is beginning to emerge is in online technology social media platforms like the SpiceWorks Community.  This online community has hundreds of thousands of small and medium business IT professionals and managers online and engaged in ongoing discussions on everything from low level technical problems and architecture concerns to product selection and vendor relationship management.  A few progressive vendors have joined the community and are interfacing with their customers and potential customers in a mode that, in many ways, mimics the behavior found in the enterprise.  Suddenly vendors and customers have an opportunity for personal interaction and open dialogue.

Through this conversation between vendors and customers there is a real opportunity for vendors to learn about the needs and desires of their customers, interact with customer peers, share resources and, most importantly, simply have an open discussion where concerns and needs can be exposed and addressed.  Customers have questions, often a lot of them.  There is not time during a sales call requesting pricing for the customer and the vendor to get to know one another and become acquainted with each other’s needs and offerings.  Through ongoing conversations, not only when a customer is considering an immediate purchase but on a regular basis, the relationship between vendor and customer can be formed allowing them to understand one another, feel comfortable reaching out with questions and suggestions and more.

Vendors have more than simply the chance to answer product questions when they are part of a larger conversation.  They can also provide input into conversations that are not necessarily directly related to their own products.  They can provide insight into larger architectural and design decisions.  In many cases they can take the time to explain how their products work or why they are valuable to their customers.  It is not uncommon, especially in the SMB space, for potential customers to have no previous knowledge of products that are available to them or if products would apply to them, work in their environment or integrate with their architecture.

Because the conversation is an opt-in experience vendors can talk with customers or potential customers without the need for a sales or marketing interface.  The customers are ready to hear about products.  They want know and they want to learn.  This is a marketplace where sales lead generation is already done simply by the fact that the customers are present.  They have already given the vendor their ear.

Learning how to behave in this open conversation marketplace is difficult for many vendors – especially those that are very well established large businesses. Adapting is critical as those companies that are perceived as caring about their customers will have a significant advantage over those companies who appear to find it a burden to stoop to interacting with small clients.

Large businesses are accustomed to keeping the SMB market at arm’s length often arguing that the “channel” – the reseller and system integration market – was their interface to small business.  The channel, however, acts as a chasm keeping small businesses from ever speaking directly to their vendors causing both to rely on a third party, who may not share any common interest with either, to broker any semblance of a conversation.  The channel is not incentivized to act in the interest of either party and will likely only present products and services that they themselves support and those with the greatest profit margins rather than exploring niche product options and exotic solutions that may be a better fit.  The interest of the customers are then not passed back to the vendors leaving the vendors guessing blindly what products and services would be useful to the SMB marketplace.  The lack of experience with SMBs often means that vendors are completely unknowledgeable about their customers or in many cases simply do not even have those customers.

A perfect example of this breakdown in communications is with IBM.  I watched an active online conversation involving IBM where a large group of heavily experience SMB IT professionals were discussing IBM and its place in the SMB space – what products it offered, how they would compete with other vendors and IBM’s specific relationship with small businesses.  In this conversation I heard repeatedly people speak about IBM’s only SMB focused offerings being its desktops and laptops.  I was shocked, as I suppose was IBM itself, since IBM stopped manufacturing these products many years ago having sold that division to Lenovo.  Even experienced IT professionals taking an interest in IBM, enough to participate in what evolved into a virtual panel discussion on their role in the market, were kept so far removed from IBM itself that they were unaware of even who IBM was and what they offered in the market.  A significant eye opener for everyone.  Likely this breakdown in market communications has been caused by IBM’s reliance on the channel to provide them an interface to their customers and that channel finding it better to sell Lenovo products as IBM products to customers who know the name IBM but do not know Lenovo than to take the time to educate their customers.

IBM is certainly not alone here but with their relatively recent divestment of their desktop and laptop business to Lenovo has created a unique and dramatic challenge in their interface to the SMB market.  IBM’s key competitors, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, use their desktop, laptop, display, networking and printer products as their key “in” with SMB customers and then, once chosen as a vendor, are able to make the relatively rare server sales to this market as well.  IBM has the challenge of selling servers and services to a market that is guaranteed to be buying its desktops and other products from a competing vendor.

Sun (now a part of Oracle) has long faced this same challenge in this market.  SMB IT managers understand desktops and laptops well – this is their bread and butter, what they deal with primarily every day.  Most SMB concerns are desktop related and the bulk of their purchasing is done there.  SMBs do not buy servers in large quantities with rare exception and using a different vendor for infrequent server purchases, which would involve separate vendor relationships and managing different support contracts, is not something that SMB IT managers are going to seek out.  Companies like IBM and Sun need to be involved directly with these customers and make them aware of their unique product offerings, such as Power and Sparc platforms in this example, to even have customers understand who they are and what they may offer.

This issue, hardly unique to IBM and Sun, is exacerbated by the use of the channel.  SMB IT shops will generally only turn to one system integrator, managed service provider or vendor to supply them with hardware.  Since PCs drive SMB IT this means that SMB shops will, by necessity, be turning to managed service providers who are partnered with someone who supplies desktops.  That then makes it rather unlikely that those service providers would additionally be partnered with someone like IBM or Sun.  This then, in turn, causes that service provider to automatically recommend products only from the vendor(s) with whom they are partnered further isolating customers from potential solutions from alternative vendors.  This isolation can be mitigated through direct vendor to customer relationships even if purchasing itself is still handled through a channel provider.  It is in both the vendor and the customer’s interests to interface directly and to engage in a conversation.

It is not uncommon to see IT managers choose a vendor based primarily upon that vendor’s willingness to engage in an open conversation.  Customers like vendors with whom they have a relationship.  They really like knowing that when something goes wrong or when a great new, but not entirely understood, opportunity arises that they can turn to a vendor representative, especially in an open community like SpiceWorks, and ask them for assistance or guidance.  No one expects the representative themselves to have all, or even any, of the answers.  They expect that person to have the resources necessary to reach out internally at the vendor and engage the right people.  Not only is this method friendly and cost effective but it is also very low stress.  Customers often don’t know where the problem may reside and do not have contacts internal to the vendor, unlike enterprise customers who often deal with specific issues so often that they know the necessary resources at the vendor, and without a representative to whom they could turn they may be left without the necessary contact information or channels to get the assistance that they need.  In some cases this may result in customers feeling that the product is poorly supported or just does not work and in others could result in new opportunities being lost or the customer turning to another vendor whom they know offers a workable solution.

While the online SpiceWorks community is hardly the only venue for vendor to customer interactions it is rapidly becoming a unique place, do to its scale, reach and unique SMB focus, where vendors and customers can make connections, join in open discussions, create relationships and get support.  The community is extremely large, over 700,000 IT professionals all from the SMB ranks and is rapidly expanding both with its online presence but also with local users groups and regional SMB IT conferences – all of which present opportunities for vendors to interact with the SMB marketplace in new and exciting ways.  SpiceWorks represents, I feel, a key component in the future of vendor relationships in the SMB IT market.  SpiceWorks acts as a broker to the conversation providing the venue and framework necessary to make customer/vendor interactions as simple and valuable as possible.  As the community continues to grow and as more vendors decide to become a part of the conversation I expect to see the value of this forum expand exponentially.  It is in communities like this that those vendors serious about the SMB IT market will succeed in differentiating themselves and engaging current and potential customers.

The Dangers of Blade Servers in SMB – Debunking the Blade Server Myth

Blade Servers are the hottest trend in datacenters today.  I am sure that you have heard the hype: lower cost and better efficiency.  To be sure, blades have come a long way in the last few years and are looking better than ever, but considering putting blades into your own business is something that should be considered very carefully.  There are many hidden dangers inherent to the blade concept that are often overlooked and these hidden dangers can come back to haunt you long after you have committed to the idea of blades.

Before we look into blades themselves I want to discuss what blades are.  According to Wikipedia: “Blade servers are stripped down computer servers with a modular design optimized to minimize the use of physical space. Whereas a standard rackmount server can function with (at least) a power cord and network cable, blade servers have many components removed to save space, minimize power consumption and other considerations, while still having all the functional components to be considered a computer.”  It is important to define blade servers because it has become common, especially in the used server market, for resellers to use the term blade to refer to standard, 1U and 2U rackmount servers in the hopes of confusing customers new to the blade market.  Blades are a specific hardware category that requires the use of an enclosure and are not simply “small” servers.  Blade servers use shared components in the enclosure, such as power supplies and remote management consoles, reducing the components necessary in each individual blade server.

The first danger of blades is cost.  Blade enclosures are generally very expensive even though blades themselves are often less expensive than their rackmount counterparts.  In a quick price comparison of a large blade vendor’s offerings the enclosure was approximately $5,000 and could hold a maximum of eight blade servers.  Each blade was roughly $500 less expensive than the matching vendor’s rackmount server of the same or similar specs.  This means that a fully populated blade enclosure, at list price, from this vendor would cost $1,000 more than the equivalent computational power in traditional form factors.  And every blade slot not populated would be an additional $500 deficit.

The cost of blades is not just a total cost factor.  Blade enclosures, often holding eight to sixteen blade servers, need to be purchased up front.  If you need enough servers to match the capacity of an enclosure this is not a factor, but if you are looking to buy only a single server now you may be making a significant investment in proposed future server farm growth.  This means increased risk as well as an investment against the time-value of your dollar.

Hardware cost is always a difficult number to nail down.  Stated prices from the vendors rarely reflect reality and, as most companies know, dramatically lower prices are available if you demand them.  I have known companies to get their blade enclosures for free, for example, which completely changes the cost equation of blades.  But in the same breath one must remember that if a blade enclosure is available for free that serious discounts on traditional rackmount servers are likely also available.  So the list prices are often a good judge of relative prices even if not absolute ones.  Your mileage will vary – so due diligence is necessary to create a cost analysis appropriate for your given situation and the deal that you receive from your vendor.

The second danger of blades is technological obsolescence.  Unlike traditional racks which have gone practically unchanged for many decades, blade enclosures are new and relatively dynamic.  Several generations of blade enclosures have come and gone since their inception in 2001 and each subsequent generation, thus far, has required shops to replace their enclosures to support new blade servers.  This is a high risk if you are not buying servers often enough and in large enough quantity to justify the technology churn in the enclosures.  This rate of change is slowing as the technologies mature, but risks remains.  When doing a proper cost analysis of blade servers this rate of change needs to be factored.

The third danger is vendor lock-in.  Traditional rack technologies are vendor agnostic.  Most shops will mix and match not only servers but batteries, routers, switches, monitoring equipment and other gear into their racks.  Blades are vendor specific.  For a large enterprise this is of little or no concern.  In a small shop with a limited number of servers it can be crucial not to give up the ability to use different vendors and technologies.  This can be a limitation on technology but also is a limitation on leverage to obtain premium vendor pricing discounts in the future.

Take, as an example, a shop that wishes to run HP Integrity blades with their Intel Itanium processors today.  They invest in blade enclosures and begin using them.  In three years they purchase software that runs on Sun UltraSparc or IBM Power processors.  In order to use blades each of these technologies will require their own brand of blade enclosure and will significantly increase the risk in a small shop that enclosures will not be able to be fully populated.  There is much more flexibility in technologies using traditional rackmount servers because each vendor generally supplies one set of RISC or EPIC-based systems and one set of AMD / Intel-based commodity systems.  If you want more than that blades will become quite difficult for a small shop to manage.  I have worked first hand with shops that use multiple technologies like this on a regular basis making blades a most difficult choice today before considering potential future platform desicions.  The use of Apple Mac OSX must also be mentioned as Apple does not provide blade servers so any deployment of OSX-based servers cannot be integrated into a blade enclosure.

The fourth danger is the shared backplane and other key components.  A blade enclosure, while generally built with massive redundancy and with truly amazing design, still represents a single point of failure that must be considered.  If your enclosure fails you do not lose just a single server but as many as sixteen physical server platforms.  With rackmounts servers you can add redundancy simply by adding an additional server – typically one matching server for each server you need.  With blades you have to have redundant enclosures for the same level of reliability.  Again, for a large enterprise this is trivial and obvious.  For a small business the need to suddenly own dual enclosures for full redundancy will often result in simply foregoing that level of protection and increasing risk.

The fifth danger is in the cost of flexibility.  Small IT shops may not often move their equipment around.  The option is generally there, though.  If a small business owns three servers and replaces one with a shiny, new unit the option is almost always there to redeploy the old server to another role elsewhere in the company – perhaps in a branch office.  With blades the old blades can only be redeployed in a location that has a blade enclosure matching the one from which the blade was pulled.  This is a cost of lost opportunity late in the server lifecycle and often completely ignored in cost analysis of blades.  If there is not a spot ready for an older server it is far more likely to be discarded in the blade model rather than redeployed unless the company is large enough to have many enclosures available all of the same generation and with available space ready to accept an older server.

The sixth danger of blades is the high cost of storage.  Storage is a subject all its own these days with SAN, NAS and DAS as possible options.  Shops of all sizes are moving to SAN and NAS quickly and with enough network storage in place this can alleviate much of the storage risk associated with blade servers.  Many shops, however, use circular reasoning and justify SAN because of the blades and blades because of the SAN.  Taking a holistic view of the server and storage picture is crucial.

A typical blade server can house only one or two 2.5″ SAS or SATA drives.  This is far less than a typical rackmount server would provide as potential storage space.  It is common to find eight to sixteen drive bays available in popular 2U rackmount configurations – sometimes using 3.5″ drives rather than 2.5″ drives.  One popular and very cost effective 2U server can hold 28TB of low-cost storage on fourteen spindles.  You cannot put this type of storage into a blade enclosure.  Because local drive space is simply not available, blade server owners are forced to use minimal direct attached storage and use SAN or NAS instead even when DAS would provide better performance and cost (otherwise) for that particular application.

To bridge this need most blade vendors provide storage blades – blade servers that act as tiny, low volume SAN devices and fit directly into the blade enclosure.  These units are generally of rather low capacity, often just six drives, and rather expensive compared to other means of providing storage.  Additionally they use a critical enclosure bay removing one of the potential slots necessary for a blade enclosure to provide server density.  So an eight bay blade enclosure with two small storage blades would only be able to house six blade servers.

Obviously buying a blade enclosure does not mean that you have given up the ability to also use rackmount servers when appropriate.  You can continue to mix and match.  But to obtain the numbers necessary for a small business to cost justify the blade infrastructure often requires that purchases lean heavily towards blade servers to fill the enclosure(s) as densely as possible.

Much of the danger of blades is in the potential for lost opportunities.  Small businesses especially function best and compete most strongly against larger businesses by being flexible and agile.  Blades are the opposite of agile.  They require large, upfront infrastructure planning that includes technological, physical and geographic lock-in.  Even if a business plans ahead and sees no obstacles to adoption this does not mean that opportunities will not be missed in the future, caused by a lack of flexibility to adapt to changing business conditions effectively.  Once a blade enclosure is in place purchasing decisions almost certainly are made based on the investment already made and no longer on simply what is best for the company.  This doesn’t have to happen but almost certainly will.  The existing investment needs to be protected.  This is the natural reaction to have.

All of this being said, blade servers can still make a lot of sense for certain businesses.  Blade servers generally consume less power than their non-blade counterparts due to their shared system components.  Be sure to consider the power consumption differences in the storage area, however, as blades push power consumption from the server to the SAN and can often be misleading as to where the power is going.  A savings in one place is only valuable if the cost does not appear again in another.

Blades are easy to transport and relocate when enclosures are available.  This can be a bigger factor than is obvious especially when it means that there are several additional staff members capable of relocating a server.  Almost anyone can lift and move a blade server.

When combined with a very aggressive SAN infrastructure, blades can be very beneficial to a virtualization environment.  This combination gives the maximum cost and flexibility advantage to businesses large enough to leverage it.  The SMB market mostly consists of businesses for whom this would be very prohibitive, though, and this solution will continue to be relegated to businesses at the larger end of the SMB spectrum.  Virtualization will, in fact, reduce the number of servers needed by most businesses making it even harder to justify blades to smaller businesses where previously a dozen or more servers would have been needed but today only two to four are needed to not only meet but to surpass earlier service levels.

If you can support adequate densities or get really aggressive vendor incentives then blades can be quite cost effective if you calculate against your risks.  Blades are always a little more risky, but if your cost is reduced significantly in buying them then they may be very much worth the risk in flexibility.  The cost of the enclosure is a key factor here.  If your enclosure is free then suddenly the cost savings of a blade system can be enormous – especially if a large number of blades are purchased providing really good enclosure density.

Blade servers are a great technology and show a lot of promise for the future.  As enclosure lifecycles slow, new technologies emerge, costs are reduced, volumes increase and, hopefully, as vendor-neutral standards emerge I am confident that blades will become the de facto standard in even the smallest datacenters.  I see this as taking at least another market cycle before this will really occur.  Most likely, in my opinion, it will be another five to seven years before the form factor truly displaces the rackmount server in general utility.