Network servers based on Intel chips and running the Windows operating system used to be a minority alternative to Unix-based options. But PC-based servers are now big business, thanks to a combination of power, reliability and good price performance.
It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who buys PC servers for a living that there are now a lot of different suppliers clamouring for their custom. Two suppliers in particular are currently conducting an increasingly public duel for user affections - Dell and Compaq.
In the US, this competition has taken a whole new turn. Compaq, stung by user defections to Dell, with its streamlined sales model and in-house support, has set up an initiative called Dell Win Back. As the name implies, this scheme hits on large corporate customers that have recently jumped ship and tries to woo them back with hard sell tactics. It has, apparently, been quite successful.
Waging war in the UK
There is no equivalent to Dell Win Back in the UK, but no one should be in any doubt that a comparable battle is raging.
Compaq may have around 52 per cent of the PC server market by volume of sales in the UK, according to market researcher Romtec, but Dell is catching up fast with 24 per cent. With the next nearest vendor, IBM, holding eight per cent of the market, it is effectively a two-horse race. But with Dell outselling Compaq in the desktop PC space in the UK now, Compaq is not unnaturally worried that problems lie ahead in the server space.
Tony Harvey, Compaq's product manager for servers in the UK, defended the aggressive nature of the US's Dell Win Back initiative. "While we have so specific a programme, the campaign in the US is just good business practice. If you lose a customer, you want to find out what you did wrong, so you can take the information and fix it," he said.
He denied that Dell represents any particular threat to Compaq with regard to its UK customers. "Dell is very serious competition, but our market share is holding up, so Dell must be growing at the expense of other manufacturers," he said. Harvey added that Dell's direct sales model is designed with the desktop PC in mind, and claims that most business buyers prefer to buy servers from a technically skilled reseller.
Andy Barraclough, Dell UK's enterprise systems marketing manager, said: "It's flattering that Compaq should be targeting us in this way. We don't feel we need a gimmicky programme to go after competitors. You can't just go into an account you've lost, offer a cheaper price to win it back, and walk away. Servers aren't like that. It's more about service and support."
Users want the best deal
But the interest for users is not in speculating as the two giants slug it out. It is in deducing which supplier, and which service and support offer, represents the best value. Is Dell catching up so fast simply because on some important level it is a better deal? Or are there good reasons for Compaq server customers to remain with Compaq, whatever the allure of alternatives?
Thomas Meyer, senior analyst for systems and servers with IDC, has researched and identified the most important elements of Dell's success. He has some views on why that success might ultimately prove limited in the upper echelons of the server sphere.
"Dell's success remains, for the time being, based on its business model - its efficiency of resource planning, limited inventory, build and configure-to-order model, as well as its telephone and web-based services," said Meyer.
He believes that Dell has also been clever at focusing sales drives in specific market segments, and in managing a relatively consistent implementation of its business model on a global scale.
At the same time, Meyer said that this model has restricted Dell from moving further up the enterprise into a more mission-critical server space, and that it has also limited the value added to these products even though additional functionality or services would appeal to prospective buyers here.
In other words, Dell is great at efficiently knocking out reliable products at a fair price, and supporting them mainly through call centres and the internet, with only a small degree of reliance on a limited network of third parties.
Where Compaq obviously still outshines Dell is at the next level, where higher level servers are given tougher tasks to do and where a different class of knowledge and experience is required to make the implementation a success. This is likely to be better provided by an authorised reseller partner of Compaq (or IBM or Hewlett Packard). The Dell model drives all before it for a certain kind of solution, but meets a glass ceiling thereafter.
So long as server buyers bear important considerations and distinctions like this in mind, they have nothing more to worry about than a friendly visit from Compaq's customer care commandos.
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