The new model coming next week, to be called the BladeCenter T, will mean the company can take a stab at a new customer niche. But Big Blue is pointing its blade servers at a much larger base of buyers, planning models for its mainframe and Unix server customers as well.
In IBM's vision, servers are headed in two general directions: hulking machines bigger than refrigerators and packed with dozens of processors, and blade servers with different types of thin systems that slip into a common chassis the way books fit into a bookshelf.
The large systems have been around for decades, but blades are new territory for most buyers. To make its expansive blade maneuver pay off, IBM will have to equip the slender machines with attractive high-end features, according to one analyst.
"It makes a lot of sense if you can get to a common infrastructure," in which many types of computing hardware modules can be plugged into a common system, said Gartner analyst John Enck. "But the devil is in the details."
Despite the challenge, it's not hard to see why IBM's so interested.
For one thing, blade server revenue jumped to $583 million last year, up 548 percent from 2002, according to market researcher IDC, and analysts project more growth ahead.with a 35 percent share, and Hewlett-Packard in second at 31 percent, followed by Dell and Sun Microsystems.
For another, blade customers more often buy other IBM gear. About 25 percent buy storage network technology for their blades, compared with less than 10 percent for regular Intel server customers, Tim Dougherty, director of IBM's BladeCenter line, said in an interview Monday. And twice as many blade customers buy external storage systems compared with regular Intel server customers, he said.
And there's another sales angle: A customer who buys an IBM blade will likely have to come back to Big Blue or its partners to buy upgraded blades or other equipment that can be plugged into an IBM blade chassis.
"There are definitely vendor lock-in issues. That's why the vendors like them (blades) so much," said Enck. At the same time, however, the notion of lock-in has made some customers leery.
Another roadblock for blades meeting their full potential is the comparatively slow data transfer speed of the "backplane" that connects a group of blades, according to Gartner's Enck. A faster backplane could permit bunches of blades to jointly house a single database, he said.
IBM is aware of the limit. "The first thing that causes us to go to a different chassis will be the need to upgrade the backplane," Dougherty said. It's sufficient today for 1-gigabit-per-second Ethernet networks, but not for the upcoming 10gpbs networking speed, he said.
Moving beyond Intel servers
IBM has expanded its blade server line from its origin as just a housing for servers using Intel processors. This month, IBM began , which uses two PowerPC 970 processors and runs Linux.
In 2005, the Power blades will begin resembling IBM's Unix server line, with a system comprising four PowerPC 970 processors, Dougherty said. And with a four-processor model, IBM's version of Unix--called AIX--becomes a compelling alternative to Linux, he said.
In addition, IBM has blades containing Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor working in its labs. Although IBM hasn't committed to sell such a system, "if I were to bet, I'd say you'll probably see it," Dougherty said.
HP has said it will.
For IBM's nearer-term plans, there is the BladeCenter T. That system will meet telecommunication customers' requirements, such as the ability to run off direct current and certification to the Network Equipment Building Standard (NEBS) standard, which means a system has been tested to withstand smoke, shaking, and very high or low temperatures, Dougherty said.
While the BladeCenter chassis will change to meet these telecommunications requirements, the blade servers within will be the same as for the conventional BladeCenter, he said.
Dougherty also shed some light on IBM's plan to offer a blade spawned from IBM's zSeries mainframe line, a move that could spread mainframe technology by making it less expensive.
"It will allow us to come into a space below where the zSeries is currently sitting, as opposed to saying this is the new zSeries," Dougherty said. But don't expect it soon: "You're talking maybe two years out," Dougherty said. "There's lots of engineering issues to be solved there."
The mainframe blade will fit in with IBM's marketing pitch of "infrastructure simplification," in which IBM suggests that customers move from their current complicated server arrangement to a combination of mainframes and blades, Dougherty said.
There's still room for lower-priced mainframes, Enck said. "There are a lot of small mainframes being sold. That continues to be an opportunity for IBM."