IBM Power blades to arrive in March

Big Blue plans to announce on Tuesday a slender server called the JS20 that uses its own Power processors, but a delay means the system won't ship until late in the first quarter.

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IBM plans to announce on Tuesday a thin blade server that uses its own Power processors, but a delay means the system won't ship until March--just ahead of a counterattack by Hewlett-Packard.

The JS20 server module will house two 1.6GHz PPC 970 processors, which go by the name G5 in desktop computers from Apple Computer. Although IBM plans to make its AIX version of the Unix operating system available for the blades, the company will position Linux as the first choice for the systems, said Jeff Benck, vice president of IBM's BladeCenter line.

IBM is also planning more-powerful Power blade servers, with four processors. "Four-way Power is something our customers have asked us about. We're not going to have it in the first half of next year, but it is something we see in the road map," Benck said.

Blades are an emerging technology that pack numerous servers into a chassis that provides shared infrastructure such as power supplies and external networking connections. Promised benefits include better management software, fewer cable snarls, more expansion options and smaller floor-space requirements.

The PPC 970 is a 64-bit processor, meaning it can use vastly more memory than its 32-bit predecessors in the PowerPC branch of the Power family tree. Various members of IBM's Power chip family appear in everything from low-end communication gear to Sony gaming consoles and high-end IBM Unix servers.

HP, which like IBM already sells blades using Intel's 32-bit Xeon, plans to release blades with Intel's 64-bit Itanium in the second half of 2004, said Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for HP's industry standard server group, on Friday.

HP doesn't plan to build blades using its own 64-bit processor, the PA-RISC, which it's gradually phasing out in favor of Itanium. Sun Microsystems, in contrast, already sells blades with its 64-bit UltraSparc IIe processor at $1,795 apiece and plans a follow-on using its Gemini processor, scheduled to arrive in 2004.

IBM is using price to fight the battle, with lower-end Sun UltraSparc servers the prime target, Benck said. A dual-processor JS20 blade will cost $2,699 with 512MB of memory and $4,017 with 2GB. Its top capacity is 4GB, IBM said.

"We're driving a whole new aggressive price point for Power technology into our product line," Benck said. In comparison, the least expensive Power-based server from IBM today is a $5,745 p615 server with a single 1.2GHz Power4+ processor and 1GB of memory.

As many as 14 JS20 blades fit side by side in a 12.25-inch-tall BladeCenter chassis. The chassis can also accommodate blades using Intel's Xeon processor and specialized blade modules for networking tasks.

The machine won't ship until March 5, IBM said. Earlier this year, IBM said volume shipments would take place in 2003.

IBM's JS20 wasn't the only blade to see its schedule slip. IBM had also hoped to introduce a four-Xeon blade this year, but Benck said it's now slated for release in the first quarter of 2004.

The four-processor Xeon blades will be twice the thickness of the dual-processor blades, Benck said, meaning that seven will fit into one chassis.

Initially the JS20 will be available with Linux from SuSE Linux and Turbolinux, with support from Red Hat Linux to come in the second quarter, and AIX 5L at midyear, Benck said.

IBM sells four different server lines--xSeries for Intel-based systems, zSeries for mainframes, iSeries for a family of midrange systems and pSeries for Unix servers. Because the BladeCenter spans two of these lines, pSeries and xSeries, it sports the "eServer" brand.

IBM is ambitious and aggressive with its blade plans. In Germany, Big Blue's engineers have been tinkering with zSeries blades using a mainframe's processor and the z/OS operating system. And through a partnership with Intel, IBM hopes to establish its BladeCenter configuration as a standard other server makers will use.

A new feature for IBM Unix servers?
IBM's decision to sell servers with the PPC 970 also could portend a change for other members of the Power line: chip hardware that can accelerate audio and video.

The PPC 970 includes acceleration circuitry called VMX, Benck said, technology that goes by the name of Velocity Engine at Apple and AltiVec at Motorola.

"We're absolutely working on a plan for how it might work across the rest of the platforms," Benck said.

VMX is an example of "single instruction, multiple data" technology that can speed up some tasks by applying the one command to a large quantity of information instead of having to issue many identical commands. Similar technology exists in Intel's Pentium and Xeon processors.

VMX-like technologies are widely used in desktop machines, but the idea came from supercomputing circles and will have applications for servers, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. In addition to IBM's supercomputing push, VMX technology could speed server tasks such as sending out streams of audio and video and creating detailed digital movie imagery, he said.