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IBM debuts new top-end Intel server

Big Blue's new top end to its xSeries server family accommodates as many as 32 of Intel's latest Xeon processors.

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Stephen Shankland
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IBM on Wednesday announced a new top end to its xSeries server family, a machine that accommodates as many as 32 of Intel's latest Xeon processors.

The x460 is built using IBM's x3 chipset, which permits four-processor modules with interconnecting cables to be stacked together into a larger system. That technique means customers buying a system they might want to expand later don't have to pay for a large chassis with just a few processors.

The machines use Intel's newest Xeon MP processor, code-named Potomac, which is geared for multiprocessor servers. It's the first such model that includes 64-bit features to easily accommodate more than 4GB of memory, and servers built for it will be able to accept a successor scheduled to arrive in early 2006 that has dual-processing engines called cores.

First versions of the x460, with either four or eight processors, will be generally available June 17, said Jay Bretzmann, a director in IBM's xSeries high-performance division. A machine with eight 3.33GHz Xeon MP processors will have a price of $72,182. In July, customers will be able to link more of the 5.25-inch-tall cabinets together to make machines with as many as 32 processors.

IBM's approach to the Intel server market changed in 1998, when Big Blue began work on in-house chipsets--the supporting chips that link processors to one another and to other computer subsystems. The x460 uses IBM's third-generation chipset for Intel servers, called the x3.

Big Blue's strategy mirrors that of competitor Sun Microsystems, which is designing high-end servers that use a rival x86 processor: Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. The two leaders of the x86 server market, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, both have backed away from plans for higher-end x86 servers and sell only models with four processor sockets.

But IBM believes Intel, not AMD, is the best way to go for high-end servers.

"We continue to evaluate whether that makes sense," Bretzmann said of IBM's Opteron evaluation. "But in the commercial space, all we would really do is confuse the sales force and maybe suboptimize our investment. We think we've made the right bet with the Intel architecture. It's the most validated, the most reliable, and customers accept it."

Opteron has put Intel on the defensive, though. "Intel's 64-bit Xeon processors hoed a fairly tough row in a market where AMD's first-to-market Opteron processors set the pace," Pund-IT analyst Charles King said in a report on Wednesday. Opteron chips introduced 64-bit support to the x86 market in 2003, and dual-core models are available today.

IBM sells dual-processor Opteron servers for high-performance computing tasks. An Opteron blade server, the LS20, is scheduled to become available later this month.

The x460 is a big brother to the four-processor x366 introduced in February.

The last top-end model, called the x445, packed processors more densely--as many as eight in a 7-inch-high cabinet. The newer model takes up more space, with four processors in a 5.25-inch high cabinet, because IBM had to accommodate the heat thrown off by the dual-core Xeon processors to come, Bretzmann said.

IBM initially said the x445 would work in 32-processor configurations, but the company only advised its use with 16 processors because of the 64GB memory limit, Bretzmann said. With the 64-bit Xeon chips, the x460 can handle as much as 512GB of memory.

The x460 works with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, Suse Linux Enterprise Server 9, and server versions of Microsoft Windows. Support for the newer RHEL 4 is scheduled for the third quarter of the year.