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IBM wants to crash server appliance soiree

IBM is a little late to market but hopes to make up for lost time by inundating the competition with an array of special-purpose servers.

IBM is a little late to the server appliance party, but the company hopes to make up for lost time by inundating the competition with an array of special-purpose servers.

Sales start Monday with the arrival of six new server appliances, four from IBM's Intel-based xSeries line, formerly called Netfinity, and two from its iSeries midsized business server line, formerly called AS/400.

Server appliances are special-purpose computers that handle network jobs such as encrypting communications, storing files or sending streams of video. They're designed to be cheaper, easier to use, or more powerful than their general-purpose brethren.

IBM's xSeries servers handle serving up Web pages and storing data, while the iSeries uses IBM's Domino software for running collaboration projects.

Yet that's just the tip of the iceberg, according to marketing manager Brian Sanders, who believes customers will prefer to buy server appliances that look and work like each other instead of buying from an assortment of companies.

In the future, IBM plans to sell server appliances for housing email, caching Internet data to help speed its delivery, setting up network security firewalls and balancing computing work across a group of servers.

In addition, IBM could offer one server appliance to set up virtual private network (VPN) connections--secure channels across the public Internet--and another to link employees checking into corporate networks on a notebook or handheld computer, Sanders said.

The products are the first Big Blue has released since it embarked on its server appliance effort in March.

IBM's announcement was followed by one from Dell Computer, which began selling its first PowerApp server appliances in April and already has three models on the market.

Server appliances were pioneered by a host of start-ups such as Network Appliance, Cobalt Networks and CacheFlow. Since then, Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard have launched server appliance strategies, despite the expectation that the new products would cannibalize sales of existing general-purpose servers.

IBM isn't the only traditional server powerhouse scrambling to find a way into the server appliance market. Sun Microsystems, although the dominant company in general-purpose servers, decided it would be easier to buy its way into the market. A month ago, Sun announced plans to acquire Cobalt as a way to jump-start its strategy.

IBM offers the Web server with a choice of two operating systems: Linux and a specialized, stripped-down version of Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Both are rack-mountable models that are 1.75 inches tall with a single processor.

With 256 MB of memory, a 9GB hard disk and an 800-MHz CPU, the Linux model costs $3,995. The Windows model costs $4,295. IBM argues that the Windows model, while more expensive, adds features such as IBM's caching software and Windows' Active Directory.

The network-attached storage device comes in two varieties: one that is a tower version holding 108GB to 216GB, the other a rack-mountable model that holds up to 1.7 terabytes. The tower version costs about $11,000, while the rack-mountable version costs $35,000, Sanders said.

The two iSeries models are the 270, with one or two of IBM's Power architecture CPUs, and the 820, with up to four CPUs, IBM said. Prices for the iSeries begin at $10,000.