IBM blade server redesign for 2006

IBM will introduce a new forward- and backward- compatible chassis for its blade servers in 2006, boosting its networking features and flexibility.

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IBM will introduce a new chassis for its blade servers in 2006, boosting its networking features and flexibility, said the new leader of the company's blade group on Thursday.

Blade servers are thin systems that plug into a chassis that supplies shared networking and power infrastructure. The new chassis will be forward and backward compatible with IBM's current blade product, which was introduced three years ago, said Doug Balog, vice president of the BladeCenter business. That means current blades will plug into the new chassis and new blades will plug into the old chassis, which IBM plans to continue selling.

"We will have an expanded chassis offering next year. It's not a replacement," Balog said in an interview. Balog previously led BladeCenter product development but took over management of the full group in May.

Also coming in 2006 will be blade servers using IBM's new PowerPC 970MP, a dual-core version of the PowerPC chip that's used in IBM's JS20 blade server. The PowerPC 970MP also is used in Apple Computer's latest Power Mac computers. "We're looking forward to a launch of that early next year," Balog said.

Blade servers are a fast-growing part of the overall server market. IBM's BladeCenter leads the market with 42 percent of the $419 million spent on blade servers in the second quarter, according to Gartner.

Big Blue is working to protect that lead, chiefly against Hewlett-Packard, which at 34 percent of the market is the only close competitor. A year ago, Dell began its second attempt to enter the blade market. The fourth major server maker, Sun Microsystems, plans its second attempt in 2006.

IBM said its blade server revenue increased by 90 percent in the third quarter of 2005 compared to the same quarter a year ago. The company didn't reveal specific revenue, but Technology Business Research analyst Chris Foster estimated it was $250 million.

Virtualized networking
Blade servers communicate with each other over a shared data pathway called a backplane. That backplane also links the blades to plug-in networking switch modules that can connect to other hardware with a variety of methods: Ethernet for standard computer networks, iSCSI and Fibre Channel for storage networks, or InfiniBand for a combination of network protocols.

The backplane of the current BladeCenter can transfer data as fast as 4 gigabits per second. The next-generation design will reach 40gbps, Balog said, a capacity that will permit use of the "4x" version of InfiniBand.

Though it hasn't caught on widely, InfiniBand helps with the task of "virtualizing" input-output tasks--replacing hard-wired links with more flexible connections that can assume the appearance of a variety of actual network standards. That I/O virtualization is a feature customers have asked for, Balog said.

New Intel chips
Dell is putting Intel's new dual-core Xeon processor, code-named Paxville, into its blade server, but IBM has decided to wait for Intel's full-fledged dual-core chip, Dempsey, due in the first quarter of 2006.

Paxville was designed for four-processor servers, but Intel created a version for dual-processor servers so it would have a product to compete with dual-core chips already on sale from rival Advanced Micro Devices. Intel sells only one 2.8GHz version of the dual-processor Paxville, but plans a wide range of Dempsey models.

"It was not something that made sense," Balog said. The Paxville chip for dual-processor servers is a short-term product: "Intel was looking to fill the dual-core gap in their portfolio."

For its higher-powered four-processor blade servers, IBM uses the previous-generation "Gallatin" version of Xeon chips from Intel, not the current "Potomac" or "Cranford" models introduced in the spring of 2005. Balog wouldn't say whether IBM's four-processor upgrade would use current chips, the forthcoming dual-core Paxville chip for four-processor servers, or some later model.

"We haven't made any commitment in terms of technology choice," Balog said. "We continue to see strong Gallatin sales."

In any case, four-processor blades are a relative rarity. More than 90 percent of IBM blade-server shipments are of dual-processor models, he said. When dual-core Intel models arrive, many people will use them instead of four-processor models with single-core chips.