The company is set to announce Thursday that it will begin shipping a new high-performance blade server, called eServer BladeCenter, during the third quarter and also introduce storage blades in the future, a move rival EMC is expected to match.
Meanwhile, it has discontinued an agreement with RLX Technologies, which kick-started the blade phenomenon in 2001, to resell RLX's servers.
The new dual processor-capable eServer blade servers sold under the BladeCenter name will be based on Intel's Xeon processor. Later, IBM will offer blade servers with Intel's Itanium and Big Blue's own PowerPC processors, the company said.
Blade servers are essentially small servers built on cards that can be plugged into a special rack, where they are stacked like dishes or like books. The rack offers a shared power supply and networking capabilities and allows customers to add servers on an as-needed basis.
Because they consume less energy and take up far less real estate, blades can drastically reduce computing costs. With blades, hundreds of servers can be crammed into a space that previously allowed room for only 84 servers. And far fewer fans are needed to dissipate the reduced heat generated by the machines.
Typically, blade servers are used for jobs such as Web site hosting, but IBM thinks they can do more. The company wants to bring blades into the mainstream of the server market and is focusing on improving the performance, reliability and expandability of its blades.
"Customers want blades to be real servers," said Tim Dougherty, director of blade marketing for IBM's eServer Group. "By 'real servers,' I mean full power...high performance. Why sacrifice performance if I don't need to? I don't know of any customers whose applications aren't demanding more performance."
IBM is adding software to make it easier to coordinate the activity of blades--a growing problem--by borrowing some technology from itsserver. The company will offer a version of its Director software for blade servers. Director, based on IBM's research program, an effort to create self-repairing servers, will help automate jobs like deploying a blade or updating its software. Director will also include self-healing technology that will let customers set rules that allow BladeCenter to automatically replace a failed unit with an unused backup blade or re-prioritize other blades to take over the dead server's responsibilities.
BladeCenter will also include a software-rejuvenation feature that identifies potential problems before they cause disruptions in service, while BladeCenter racks will include a network switch responsible for balancing data traffic between the machines. "We think you can do lots of things beyond that," Dougherty added.
With its own blades coming, IBM will no longer resell RLX machines. "Our contract with RLX has expired," Dougherty said. "Our customers have pointed us in a different direction."
IBM followed a similar pattern with Network Engines, a smaller server maker that preceded RLX as a pioneer in stacking servers as densely as possible. Network Engines was a leader in dual-processor, pizza box-size servers 1.75 inches thick. IBM jumped a step ahead of competitors Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer when it began selling them under its own name. Big Blue eventually developed its own models, though.
Compaq, Dell and HP also offer blade servers, such as the Compaq, and currently it remains a fairly diverse market. HP is pushing for standardization on some parts of the architecture, but so far most companies are pursuing independent design ideas.
For now, there's quite a bit of room in the blade market, allowing vendors to carve out their own niches. But as companies such as HP and Dell introduce more complete blade-server product lines, systems management will become a vital point of differentiation, according to Mark Melenovsky, an analyst with research firm IDC.
"Ultimately, that's going to be one of the main differentiators in this market," Melenovsky said. "IBM has a really strong message. It's kind of a total-solutions approach...(It's) a pretty strong position."
IDC has said it expects the blade-server market to grow fairly rapidly. About 2 million blade servers will ship in 2005, with revenue of about $2.9 billion, it said in a recent report.