IBM plans 64-Xeon server for 2005

Big Blue believes there's a future for high-end Xeon servers, while Intel steers computer makers in that market toward its Itanium chip.

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IBM plans to release a server in early 2005 that will accommodate as many as 64 Intel Xeon chips, a move that highlights the different directions Big Blue and Intel are taking the processor.

The system is the third generation of a product line that grew out of IBM's decision in 1998 to devote serious engineering work to servers using Intel processors. The work brought IBM and Intel closer together, but Big Blue believes there's a future for high-end Xeon servers, while Intel steers computer makers in that market toward its Itanium processor.

The 64-processor machine, like the first-generation 16-Xeon x440 and second-generation 32-Xeon x445, uses a version of IBM's Enterprise X Architecture (EXA) chipset, code-named Summit. Systems with the third-generation EXA chipset should begin to arrive "in the beginning of 2005," said Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM's xSeries server group.

Bradicich acknowledges that there are challenges in producing such a large system--including building support into Windows and Linux, neither of which are suited for 64-processor systems today.

IBM's system will use Intel's "Potomac" version of Xeon, a higher-end model geared for multiprocessor servers that's due in 2004.

Xeon or Itanium?
Xeon processors are 32-bit chips, limiting the amount of memory they can handle easily--in contrast to Intel's 64-bit Itanium processors. Memory capacity is important to house large databases such as Oracle or Microsoft's SQL Server.

But IBM believes Xeon is up to the task, and the company values the fact that--unlike Itanium--Xeon can gracefully run the vast majority of existing software for Intel chip-based servers.

"We see a tremendous amount of runway with Xeon with 32 bits," Bradicich said.

Meanwhile, Intel continues to push Itanium--for high-end computers today, but for lower-end machines in coming years.

The company is working on components that will make an Itanium system competitive in price with a Xeon system by 2007, Mike Fister, senior vice president of Intel's server products group, said in a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

The balance has been difficult for the chipmaker.

"Xeon has been something of a double-edged sword for Intel," Sageza Group analyst Charles King said. "Xeon keeps scaling. They keep on doing performance bumps. It's a great product. It's offered both vendors and customers some options that I'm not sure Intel really expected when they went out of the box with the thing.

"At the same time, the relative performance has been so significant that I've wondered at times whether it's been an impediment to customers moving over to the Itanium platform."

Although some IBM executives argue that "the case for Itanium weakens daily," its EXA systems accommodate either Xeon or Itanium processors.

Servers are the networked machines for tasks such as managing bank account transactions or routing e-mail. The industry has been a sour place since the collapse of the Internet mania of the late 1990s, but it's beginning to pick up steam again, according to analyst firm IDC.

"We're very optimistic about this year," IDC server analyst Vernon Turner said in a conference call. IDC expects server unit shipments to increase from about 5.1 million in 2003 to about 8.1 million in 2007, though revenue from those sales won't increase nearly as fast.

Technical challenges
More than just hardware limits 64-processor Xeon systems, though, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "Bigger systems are needed for big databases and transaction and messaging hubs, but they also need a whole scaled-up environment, not just lots of processors. This is where the 32-bit ecosystem peters out."

But King believes IBM has been "pretty savvy" with its Intel server development in recent years.

"IBM tends to be pretty systematic about the way it enters markets. The fact that they're getting in would suggest they believe the market is there," King said.

Like its existing EXA systems, the next-generation one will have several multiprocessor nodes linked with high-speed cables. This method allows customers to buy a small system, then add new boxes as needed.

Eunice believes that the design of Summit systems means the large systems might be set up as a number of independent nodes clustered together to share a database. Such an approach is still relatively new in the industry but is gaining understanding and acceptance, he said.

Dell, HP differ
Hewlett-Packard and Dell, the two companies that lead IBM in the Intel server market, have a different view of large multiprocessor systems.

HP's largest Xeon system is an eight-processor machine; beyond that, it pushes Itanium systems with as many as 64 processors.

Dell, though, tops out at four processors. In 2003, it canceled its own eight-processor system plans.

"If you look at SQL Server, 99.85 percent of all (installations) are on four-, two- or one-way systems," company Chief Executive Michael Dell said in a November interview. "As processors continue to scale, a four-way last year is the same power as today's two-way and next year's one-way."

That pattern is at odds with system design schedules. "The thing with 64-ways is that by the time you get the thing architected, you end up with something that has a very small percentage of the market," Dell said.

Unisys, which like IBM is a company with a long history of developing mainframes and other high-end computers, agrees with Big Blue that multiprocessor Xeon machines are a good idea. It has sold a 32-Xeon server line called the ES7000 since 2000.