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IBM Itanium servers push higher

Big Blue announces its second Itanium server, a more powerful machine that can accommodate as many as 16 of the high-end processors from Intel.

IBM announced on Monday its second Itanium server, a more powerful machine that can accommodate as many as 16 of the high-end processors from Intel.

The new x455 is a relative of the four-Itanium x450, IBM's first entry into the Itanium market. As expected, IBM said its x455 systems will let customers stack up as many as four 7-inch-thick modules, each with four Itanium 2 processors.

The x455 will be generally available Dec. 7, with a starting price of $21,999, according to IBM. It will come with Microsoft Windows or with Linux from Red Hat or SuSE Linux.

The machine is a significant IBM endorsement of Intel's Itanium processor family, a 64-bit line intended for high-end computers. The Itanium--which can run software designed for Intel's popular Xeon and Pentium processors only with difficulty--is not yet widely used, but its advocates, most notably Hewlett-Packard, believe this is beginning to change.

IBM, however, has shown mixed feelings about Itanium. For example, on the same day it launched its first Itanium server, it trumpeted the speed of servers that use its own Power processor.

"They find it politically expedient to offer Itanium-based servers, because they still have to live in the same world as Intel. It's the path of least resistance for them to offer Itanium, even thought they don't push it," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. But the trend is clear: "IBM is, if anything, getting further and further behind Power."

Others are more consistently enthusiastic about Itanium servers. Unisys has sold a 16-processor Itanium system, the ES7000/400, for more than a year, and HP just announced eight-processor and 16-processor systems.

"All the big (server) vendors are finally acknowledging the trend of the decade is standardization," and the best way to standardize is by using Intel processors, said Mark Feverston, vice president of marketing at Unisys. "The Intel products are going to be the backbone of computing power."

IBM and Unisys have fought pricing battles over Xeon servers, but in the Itanium market, Unisys' bigger competition is HP, Feverston said.

If the brains of the x455 are the Itanium processors, the spinal cord is a chipset IBM developed, the Enterprise X Architecture. EXA, code-named Summit, first arrived in another incarnation to support Intel's Xeon processors in IBM's 16-processor x440 system.

IBM also plans to sell a 32-Xeon x445 as a successor to the x440. However, the company's schedule for that system slipped: Big Blue initially said the machines would ship this year but now says they're due in the first quarter of 2004.