Hardware Today: Driving Business With Gateway Servers

Monday Mar 29th 2004 by Ben Freeman
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Gateway customers may be a varied lot, but Autobase stands out from the crowd. The vertical CRM solutions provider uses Gateway products internally to meet its operation and back-office needs. Externally, it takes on a VAR-like role, selling its software pre-installed on Gateway servers.

The Gateway server snapshot featured in last week's Hardware Today presented a vendor making waves in the commodity server market. Gateways' servers run the gamut from low-end 1-way Xeon towers designed for small to midsize businesses lacking an IS department, to more robust 4-way Xeon MP racks suited for departmental use as multiprocessing servers with mainframe-level error correction. These priced-to-move servers bring Gateway to a much more competitive sales level than was occupied previously by more-rudimentary and less-targeted server lines.

Gateway customers themselves are a varied group -- almost as varied as the ways in which the servers are deployed. One customer that stands apart from the crowd though is Autobase, a company whose bread and butter comes from providing customer relationship management (CRM) solutions to car dealerships. Autobase uses Gateway products internally to meet its operations and back-office needs, and also functions in a VAR-like role, bundling low-end Gateway towers with its CRM software.

On the sales side, Autobase bundles various entry-level Gateway hardware options with its software. "As the nation's largest automotive CRM software distributor, Autobase helps Gateway connect with thousands of small and medium-sized automotive dealerships nationwide," Gateway vice president of SMB and professional channels Steve McAllister told ServerWatch. "Gateway ships servers, desktop PCs, and notebooks to Autobase, which then bundles Gateway hardware with its software and services to dealer customers."

McAllister sees Gateway's dedicated 24x7 support (which is actually through IBM Global Services) as a sturdy complement to Autobase's robust, sales-driving CRM software. "Autobase software features powerful and interactive logbooks, letters, business planners, and statistical reports," he said. "Ultimately, the software helps dealerships close sales by building and maintaining strong relationships with customers."

To aid Autobase in this task, "Gateway backs up its PCs, notebooks, and network systems with dedicated support and services, around-the-clock, seven days a week," McAllister noted. This has proven to be a fuel-efficient combination for Autobase; to date, it has having rolled out more than 100 servers, 200 desktop machines, and 100 notebooks with its software management offerings.

Autobase's CRM software is available as a stand-alone offering, but the fully loaded version is a popular option. It bundles lightweight Gateway servers with software for more than 100 dealership customers. "Car dealerships are not the most technical-minded [firms] in the world, unless they're very large," Autobase Installation Engineer Eric Hinsch told ServerWatch, "so we offer to supply servers, printers, and, to a lesser extent, workstations."

Autobase most frequently deploys its software on the 960X, a dual-processor, Xeon-based tower server. Overall, rack servers are a less popular choice. "You don't have a lot of car dealerships who even know what a rack is," Hinsch said, "but those who do will usually ask during our pre-installation conference call." The servers ship with Windows 2003 based on OEM requirements.

The 960X Tower
Autobase's solutions vary in horsepower depending on the employee base, Hinsch explained. Configurations for 1-10 users, 11-25 users, and 26-50 users are available. Larger dealerships (i.e., those with 100 or more employees) typically occupy more than one building and require installation considerations beyond the norm. For these environments, Autobase recommends Gateway's 4-way offerings, such as the 995 series; another option would be to run Autobase's CRM software on already installed hardware.

Under the Hood

In addition to functioning as a VAR for Gateway, Autobase relies on Gateway servers to keep its business running. Gateway servers power many of the Indianapolis-based vendor's operations and back-office applications. Autobase IT Director Dannie Stanley described Gateway servers as part of the company's Windows 2000 back-end, complementing a homogeneous data center that includes Dell servers running Linux.

One 975 rack server is used for development, while another runs Autobase's own CRM software for Autobase internal CRM. A 955 is used for testing, and an older Gateway 935 server model is used for human resources. Three "vintage" Gateway legacy servers are still trucking. The 7450R servers (which date all the way back to 2001) are from Gateway's earlier, less-focused stab at the enterprise market are also used for the likes of Active Directory and network storage.

>> Trouble Spots, Wish Lists

"It Had Gremlins"

Overall, Autobase has been happy with Gateway servers. After all, selling your vendor's servers to customers is a mark of trust. "They've been extremely reliable," Hinsch said. But given the volume of Gateway servers Autobase uses and ships, problems are bound to crop up. Autobase has this contingency covered. In the event of hardware trouble, Gateway support partner IBM Global Services steps in, should an initial consultation between a dealership and Autobase be unable to resolve the problem.

Stanley offered a recent example, involving an internal server malfunctioning, where this support agreement came in handy. "It [the server] had gremlins," he said. "About six weeks ago, it just wouldn't boot, period, it wouldn't even get to the BIOS post screen" he said. IBM Global Services, Gateway's support partner, replaced a variety of hardware components on the server. "Then it worked. We got Windows 2000 back up and running on it."

But at press time the gremlins remain. "Now, when we come back from the weekend, it blue screens, and we've had to do two reinstalls," he says. Autobase continues in its pursuit, with IBM Global Services at the ready to help, and, despite the persistency of the problem, one malfunctioning development server in a pool of hundreds isn't too shabby of a track record.

Wish Lists

Despite Autobase's faith in the cost-effectiveness and quality of Gateway's servers, room remains for improvement. Autobase's wish list for Gateway's product lines mainly centers around manageability. Stanley would like to see Gateway's servers loaded with more robust management software, along the lines of what IBM and HP offer.

Gateway did add a more robust management suite in fourth-quarter 2003, Gateway Systems Manager 3.0. The suite is currently bundled free with new servers, but, based on Stanley's response, could probably be more proactively pushed to long-standing customers. Whether it stands up to IBM and HP's offerings will require time.

Hinsch, in the field, has no complaints. He does cite increasing customer demand for thin clients but believes Gateway (and other vendors, for that matter) will be unlikely to deliver them soon, based on cost pragmatics. "Distributors are moving away from thin clients," he said, "because at this point you can buy a PC for about the same price you can buy a client and a flat-screen monitor."

It's not surprising that a company in the management software business, like Autobase, would request improved manageability from a major server vendor. Gateway faces a tall order of grabbing more market share by loading its servers up with extras, keeping prices down, and all-the-while convincing customers its servers possess mainframe-level quality. Gateway's track record with customers like Autobase suggests such quality exists and that expanding this type of customer base into a bigger piece of the pie is within its grasp -- provided it continues to innovate and redefine commodity servers.

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