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Launch date set for redesigned IBM blades

Big Blue plans to launch its second-generation BladeCenter in February, CNET News.com has learned.

IBM plans to unveil its second-generation BladeCenter on Feb. 8, CNET News.com has learned, as it tries to keep its top spot in sales of thin but high-end servers.

The launch of the system, confirmed by sources familiar with the plan, is scheduled to take place at a press event in New York. The blade server upgrade is key to Big Blue's attempt to stay ahead in the strategically important and fast-growing market. Blades are clearly a priority for Big Blue: In an interview earlier this month, Susan Whitney, IBM's top Intel server executive, was quick to stress the company's blade server prowess.

At the same February event, IBM is also expected to announce its new JS21 blade server, which is the first model to incorporate IBM's PowerPC 970MP processor. The chip uses dual processing engines, or cores, unlike the model used in the most recent blade, the JS20.

In addition, IBM is expected to promote its Blade.org collaboration aimed at making the BladeCenter line into something akin to an industry standard--even if Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sun Microsystems, the three other major server sellers, shun the design.

IBM declined to comment for this story. However, Big Blue said last year that it planned an overhaul expected to improve the BladeCenter's networking and flexibility. In particular, the communications "backplane," which links the blades to each other and to an external network, is expected to increase data transfer capacity tenfold to 40 gigabits per second. Earlier blade models will fit into the new BladeCenter chassis, and new blade servers will fit into the older chassis.

Blade servers fit side-by-side into a chassis that typically supplies shared resources, such as power and external connections, to networks and storage systems. In their earliest days, they were simple low-end systems. Now they've become high-end models with emergency backup features, fitted with blades using as many as four processors, and built-in high-speed networking.

Blades involve considerable engineering challenges in both hardware and management software. Because of that, the major server manufacturers--which collectively dominate with about 80 percent of revenue in the server market--see blades as a key way to distance themselves farther from lesser companies that have more generic designs.

Selling blades also is a way to latch on to a market whose growth far outpaces the overall server market. In the third quarter of 2005, worldwide blade server revenue grew 97 percent over the year-earlier quarter. That compares with 8 percent growth for the overall server market, according to market research firm IDC.

In the market, IBM was No. 1 with 42 percent of the revenue, with HP at 32 percent and Dell in third with 9 percent, IDC said.

IBM has been striving to make BladeCenter a widely adopted design, convincing chipmaker Intel to join in and launching the Blade.org project to try to attract further partners. The idea was to consolidate the market and therefore simplify hardware and software development for partners that wanted to build products using blade technology. Thus far, though, no other top-tier server makers have signed on.

HP has criticized IBM for changing its BladeCenter power supply on several occasions to support more power-hungry processors. In contrast, the company has said, "HP's BladeSystem p-class platform will support today's processors and future Dempsey and (latest) Opteron without a single change for customers." Dempsey is Intel's future dual-core Xeon processor, while Opteron is Advanced Micro Devices' server processor.

However, HP's systems are less densely packed than IBM's. While IBM can fit as many as seven four-Xeon HS40 blades in a chassis 12.25 inches tall, HP can fit only two comparable BL40p blades in a chassis 10.5 inches tall--12.25 inches, if a required external power supply is included. Using Opteron, which consumes less power than Xeon, HP can fit four four-processor BL45p blades in the chassis.

Sun's first foray into the blade market was largely a dud, but the company has said it plans a new assault this year that will involve blades with both its own Sparc processor and AMD's Opteron. But Sun isn't interested in IBM's blade alliance, John Fowler, an executive vice president in Sun's Network Systems Group, said in a meeting with reporters last week.

"We have notions of blades that might be somewhat more powerful than what IBM will think about it," Fowler said.