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X Architecture for IBM servers

Big Blue aims to increase the appeal of its Intel-based Netfinity server line by adopting technology from more sophisticated systems.

IBM has begun an effort to increase the appeal of its Intel-based Netfinity servers, adopting technology from the company's more sophisticated computers.

The effort, called X Architecture, is designed to give Netfinity systems some extra muscle as IBM vies for a larger piece of the increasingly important Intel/Windows NT server market, a company spokesman said.

IBM also is working with Windows NT maker Microsoft on a technology called OnForever that let users "hot swap" not just hard disk drives but also fans, power supplies, memory, and even processors. Hot swapping is a fail-safe scheme which allows defective components to be replaced while the computer is still running. Traditionally, server computers have to be shut down for repairs, which can wreak havoc on company-wide information systems.

Another X Architecture addition to the Netfinity line is "clustering," the spreading of computing tasks across several computer "nodes" to make systems more expandable and better protected from failures.

"I think it's the right thing to do," said John Oltsik, an analyst with with Forrester Research. "Intel-based servers will run [high-end corporate] enterprise mission-critical applications over time."

But while X Architecture could make Netfinity more successful, that success could come at the expense of IBM's in-house line of AS/400 servers, he said.

If the market wants to move sophisticated tasks to Windows NT machines, "then IBM is willing to follow that trend, even if it means stepping on AS/400 along the way," said Oltsik. "That's a healthy attitude for IBM. If they don't, they lose both the AS/400 and the NT business," Oltsik said.

IBM's Netfinity sales have grown, but not as fast as its competitors' comparable offerings, Oltsik noted.

Boston-based Aberdeen Group agreed, saying in a recent paper that IBM's lack of attention to its Netfinity line was a "strategic misstep that has caused Netfinity to cede market share to Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and Dell."

IBM's Michael Liebow acknowledges that the company "kneecapped" the Netfinity servers to protect its mid-range server line--the AS/400 machines. But IBM "woke up and is throwing everything" at the Intel server platform now, he said.

Other X Architecture offerings in the works include eight-processor systems based on Intel's forthcoming 64-bit chips, special connections to high-end IBM S/390 servers, a "light path" system that automatically directs troubleshooters to faulty equipment with a chain of lights, and the MoST (Mobile Service Terminal) Connect system of diagnosing an ailing machine by plugging a diagnostic computer into a special port.

However, Oltsik noted, IBM's migration of top-end server technology to relatively low-end Netfinity servers is nothing new for the industry. "I don't think IBM is doing anything that Compaq and HP haven't thought of many times," he said. "Compaq and HP both have extensive enterprise technologies and skills they're looking to bring downstream as well."

Compaq, for example, is working with its Tandem division and Microsoft to make NT systems more fault-tolerant. Compaq also is working on clustering technology, he added.

Oltsik also believes that the X Architecture could be getting ahead of the software because Windows NT isn't robust enough to benefit. "For the most part, NT is not running mission-critical applications in large companies. That's where Unix and the mainframe own the environment," he said.

But when the next version of Windows NT arrives and more companies put critical functions on Intel/NT systems, IBM's X Architecture could pay off.

The new technology, whether from IBM, Compaq, or HP, is good for users, he declared. "Ultimately, users get commodity boxes with enterprise features," Oltsik said.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.