HP has begun shipping a new product that the company thinks will give it an edge over rival IBM in the market for blade servers.

Beginning Tuesday, HP is making Virtual Connect, a management tool for its BladeSystem c-Class servers available to more easily add blade servers to a network.

Using Virtual Connect, which the company announced in June 2006, an enterprise can set up its data centre network infrastructure ahead of time and then more easily add, subtract, change or move around servers as needed.

Currently, enterprises deploy switches in their data centre networks to connect servers to storage appliances. They're relatively cheap, but each of those switches is one more piece of hardware on the network that administrators need to manage, said Mark Potter, vice president of HP's BladeSystem business. Another alternative is to install a "patch panel," which doesn't require any separate management but is very expensive to deploy.

Adding servers is also very time-consuming and requires the involvement of a company's server manager, network manager, storage manager and others, Potter said. What should be a 30-minute task can sometimes take hours or even days. One HP customer told Potter it once took 58 days.

Virtual Connect is built in to the data centre infrastructure when it is first created. Then new servers can be simply plugged in and turned on.

"We can wire up the infrastructure one time, physically, and basically walk away," Potter said. "Then the server admin can add, replace and change servers on the fly without ever impacting the networking admin or the storage admin."

Virtual Connect is hardware and middleware that sits between the blade server and the network switches that connect to storage. Virtual Connect for a network using Ethernet switches carries a starting list price of $5,699 (£2,900). For Fibre Channel networks, it starts at $9,499 (£4,835).

Also Tuesday, HP is set to begin shipping a new blade server, the ProLiant xw460c (priced $4,329), which HP describes as the first workstation blade for the c-Class blade product line.

Virtual Connect is could be a useful solution to a data centre headache, said Gordon Haff, principal analyst with Illuminata.

"Virtual Connect does not eliminate [the work of configuring a network]. It still might take three or four weeks to do all that," Haff said. "But the idea is that you can basically do it once."

Figures released 21 February by Gartner show that IBM is the top blade seller but HP is gaining.

HP's share of the x86 platform blade market, based on revenue, rose to 33% in 2006 from 32% in 2005, while IBM's fell to 40% from 42%, said Jeffrey Hewitt, a Gartner analyst.

At the same time, though, the x86 blade market is growing. Global blade server revenue grew to $2.7 billion in 2006 from $2 billion in 2005 and unit shipments grew to 727,000 from 548,000 the year before, according to the Gartner report.