New IBM servers--a blade and a behemoth

In its attempt to conquer the Intel server market, Big Blue is working on a new x445 32-processor server and, at the other extreme, a single-processor "blade" machine.

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In its attempt to conquer the Intel server market, IBM is working on two new systems that will expand the boundaries of Big Blue's product line.

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One system, the 32-processor x445 coming later this year, is based on a second version of IBM's EXA chip, said Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM's xSeries Intel server line. At the other extreme of the product line will be a single-processor "blade" server, he said in a Tuesday interview.

The new systems are part of IBM's striving to shift from being largely irrelevant in the $16 billion Intel server market to becoming a leading advocate that applies its own considerable server-technology expertise. IBM now is No. 3 in the Intel server market after No. 1 Hewlett-Packard and No. 2 Dell Computer.

Some, including Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich, say Big Blue's effort is beginning to pay off. "IBM now makes money in Intel servers," Milunovich said in a Tuesday report.

Intel servers are increasingly important for IBM. They're the most common foundation for Linux, the Unix-like operating system IBM has wholeheartedly embraced, and Gartner Group expects more revenue from sales of Intel servers than from Unix servers, which for years have been the largest segment of the market.

The current EXA chipset is the foundation of the current x440 system that accommodates as many as 16 Intel Xeon processors and of an Itanium version that IBM Web sites refer to as the x450.

Big Blue will begin selling the Itanium product within one or two months, said Susan Whitney, general manager of IBM's Intel server group, in an interview. "We'll have IA-64 (Itanium) capability in the next 30 to 60 days," she said.

The EXA chipset shuttles data between a computer's processors, memory banks and input-output systems. The second-generation EXA chips have "directory tables" embedded into the silicon that speed up transfers of data from one part of the system to the other, making it possible to join more of the four-processor modules, Bradicich said.

IBM was the second-ranked seller of higher-end Intel servers with four or eight processors in the fourth quarter of 2002, according to IDC. No. 1 HP sold $484 million worth of the systems versus IBM's $377 million.

IBM's high-end servers haven't been able to live up to their full potential because Windows and Linux don't currently work well on servers such as the x440, x445 and x450, whose designs make for varying response times when a processor needs to retrieve information from memory.

IBM has customers running a single instance of Windows on eight-processor servers today, but Windows Server 2003, coming April 24, will mean the operating system will be able to work well on 16-processor machines as well, Whitney said.

The increasing sophistication of Intel servers plays to IBM's technical strengths, and the company is gleeful about the growing maturity.

"In 1998, a PC server was a PC (turned) on its side. Today, we have 16-way SMP (symmetrical multiprocessing) systems, with virtualized partitions and robust system management tools at one end and highly dense, integrated blades at the other end," Whitney said.

Blade servers are smaller systems that slide side by side into a single chassis, sharing components such as network connections and power supplies. Where Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and Sun Microsystems began their blade lines with lower-end uniprocessor systems, IBM entered the blade fray with more powerful dual-processor and, next, four-processor models.

IBM still is planning more powerful blades, though. In the second half of 2003, Big Blue will release blades with four Xeon chips and blades with two PowerPC 970 chips, IBM executives have said.