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IBM to round out iSeries Power5 server family

Big Blue is set to debut the eServer i5 550, an iSeries machine it created to serve midsize businesses.

IBM on Tuesday will fill in the ranks of its iSeries line of Power5 servers with a machine it says can juggle multiple jobs.

Big Blue will debut its eServer i5 550, an iSeries machine it created to serve midsize businesses and to bridge the gap between its Power5 eServer i5 520, which has two processors, and its i5 570 model, which offers 16 processors. Those two machines, which also include the Power5--IBM's latest high-end server processor that packs two processor cores into one chip--came out in May.

The eServer i5 550 was designed to help midsize businesses, typically companies that employ a few hundred to as many as 1,000 workers, by running their critical computer systems for jobs such as order entry, inventory tracking or e-mail.

IBM says that its most basic i5 550 server configuration, which costs about $74,000, comes with two of its four processors "turned on" and includes a license for IBM's i5 operating system. It also includes software that allows the server to run multiple IBM operating systems, such as its AIX, and also to manage additional servers that use Intel hardware and run Linux or Windows operating systems. The first i5 550 servers will ship next month.

By including four processors but only turning the first two on initially, IBM is letting customers pay for only what they need up-front and giving them the option of boosting performance in the future. The process of "turning on" the third and fourth processors basically helps companies plan ahead, said Craig Johnson, IBM's iSeries server marketing manager, though IBM also requires a fee of about $3,700 to turn each extra processor on, and companies are required to license extra copies of their desired operating systems per processor as well.

Despite its ability to tackle running a company's e-mail or order-entry system, the i5 550's $74,000 initial price tag might seem steep to some. IBM counters by saying that the machine can be purchased in various bundles, some of which cost less than $74,000. Meanwhile, the 550 can also run multiple operating systems simultaneously, allowing it to do the job of many other servers as well.

IBM aids in that task by including, at no extra cost, applications such as its IBM Director Multiplatform, which is designed to help out company IT staff by allowing the i5 550 to manage Intel servers running Linux or Windows. Freeing up IT staff members means they can work on other projects, Johnson said.

"Typically the hardware is the smallest component of the cost of a system," he said. Thus IBM aims to help customers by "attacking the big pieces of their (IT) expense, which is software plus people. It's about getting those people to do stuff besides babysitting a server farm."

Meanwhile, Big Blue will offer package deals, such as the i5 550 Domino Edition, designed for consolidating a Domino e-mail system onto an i5 550. The Domino Edition will cost $56,000 and come with two processors turned on. IBM will also sell a number of Solution Edition i5 550s, starting at $206,000, which include the i5 550 itself, along with IBM services and software applications for jobs like enterprise resource planning.

Thus, given the i5 550 server's ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time and also manage other servers, it could replace the need for large numbers of less-expensive servers, Johnson said.

Although IBM's Power5 servers are considered stout performers by analysts, IBM's closest competitors, including Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, aren't ready to cede the high-end server market to Big Blue.

Sun is hoping to win more takers with machines based on its UltraSparc IV processor and its Solaris operating system. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard continues to offer a range of servers based on its own PA-RISC and Alpha chips as well as on Intel's Itanium server chip.