Data Centers Are More Than Just Showrooms

eLABorations: Facilities aim to bring together vendors, customers and hands-on testing.

Now more than ever, thanks to the pallid economy, vendors need to make the purchasing process as easy and cost-efficient as possible to win new accounts and keep established ones.

Several of the heavy hitters have figured out that large customer centers need to be more than just flashy showrooms where they can brag about how big their machines are. More and more of these spaces are being used to help buyers stage and develop their systems (together with service professionals from those companies) before going into a massive "forklift upgrade."

Two new sites I visited recently are good examples of customer centers done right.

Last month, both Sun and IBM opened up brand-new showcase customer centers in the San Francisco Bay area. Although these two new centers show the differing philosophies of two huge companies—as you might expect—the central goal of attracting and servicing clients is the clearly the same.

Suns new iForce Solution Center, located on the companys Menlo Park, Calif., campus, features a series of interesting displays showing Suns software and hardware being used in a wide range of target markets, ranging from gas stations and groceries all the way to financial centers.

Although I found this center to be more of a product showcase than IBMs new facility, its clear that the iForce center also provides Sun customers with critical access to testing resources and expertise. Customers can stage and design a variety of future technology implementations at the iForce center before actually rolling them out. Go to for more information.

The IBM Design Center, which is located within the companys Silicon Valley Laboratory, in San Jose, Calif., specializes in e-business infrastructure design.

Located in IBMs gigantic, acre-size lab is an ocean of servers ranging from mainframe-class to smaller Linux servers. Shark storage arrays were also plentiful on the lab floor.

In addition to the lab, the IBM Design Center also features a usability center, where developers can observe how users react to new Web site designs—information that is becoming increasingly critical in e-commerce.

For more information about IBM Design Centers, go to

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at