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Big Blue's big-iron x86 backer

IBM's xSeries chief, Susan Whitney, talks with CNET News.com about her big-iron strategy, IBM's coolness toward AMD and more.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
Susan Whitney has endured major changes in the half decade she's spent at the helm of IBM's Intel-based server business. But one thing has remained constant in her tenure: Big Blue's commitment to big-iron x86 servers.

Intel's Xeon chip--the leading x86 model for servers, despite growing competition from Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--is used chiefly in small dual-processor machines. But IBM believes that Xeon also is good for the massive multiprocessor systems residing at the heart of business computing operations.

IBM sells machines with as many as 32 dual-core Xeon processors. That approach starkly contrasts with the two companies ahead of IBM in the x86 server market, No. 1 Hewlett-Packard and No. 2 Dell, who both withdrew eight-processor servers and now sell machines with four at maximum.

Dell thinks the high end of the server market will move to clusters of smaller systems. HP believes that large server tasks are best handled by servers using Intel's Itanium chip, which has reliability features and data transfer speeds that Xeon lacks.

The only player with a philosophy similar to IBM's is Sun Microsystems, which got x86 religion rather late in the game. But Sun's x86 servers still are expected to top out at eight processors, and Sun uses Opteron chips, a decision IBM disfavors. Its high-end x86 systems link chips together with the x3 chipset, which works only with Xeon.

Whitney talked with CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland about her big-iron strategy, IBM's coolness toward AMD and other issues.

Q: What happened in 2005 with IBM's xSeries servers, and what does 2006 hold?
Whitney: When I think about last year, what I'm most excited about is clearly our blade server growth. In the third quarter, we remained in the leadership position. It is extremely efficient from a power and cooling perspective, and that remains one of the big issues that we talk about when I sit across from customers.

I'm also excited about the ecosystem we're building. We have 350 partners working to bring IBM content to our BladeCenter. We've opened the specs, and an additional 300 industry participants have downloaded the specs to create content for BladeCenter.

Also, with our x3 architecture, we can go from two-way to a 32-way system with the Intel-based Xeon architecture. That opens up a ton of opportunities.

Q: The vast majority of the x86 servers are smaller machines. Why is IBM pushing x86 big iron?
Whitney: I see many customers, usually global customers. The high-end x86 servers have three main uses: SQL Server 2005, SAP (finance software) and customers slicing and dicing (to replace many small servers with one large one). What I hear is they were waiting for SQL Server 2005 64-bit. Now that they have it, they're looking for server choices. A lot of customers are looking at their SAP implementations and deciding where they are going to go.

Also, there is interest in emerging markets like banks in Russia. They didn't have any prior infrastructure. You get robust capabilities at very attractive prices.

Q: But how much of yours x86 server revenue is in the high end?
Whitney: We never break that out or reveal revenue by segment. The IDC data clearly show the vast majority is in the two-way space. I think that probably will continue. What I do see is a growth in the marketplace for the high-end scale-up x86 servers. I think that's because of the advent of the 64-bit capability--and there's still more to come, whether in processors, applications and the operating system.

Q: As x86 machines get more powerful, don't they overlap more with your Unix servers?
Whitney: What I see happening is much of low end of the Unix marketplace clearly moving to Lintel (Linux running on Intel chips). With the high end, the value proposition is different. There you have a single vendor providing the hardware, processor, server architecture, microcode and operating system. When you get that from a single vendor, you get a level of synergy and robustness that is unique. The x86 value proposition is different. The architectures come from different companies, the operating systems come from different communities or companies.

When you don't have the x3 architecture, to get performance levels, you have to look for other alternatives.

Q: How will 2006 differ from 2005? And what's staying the same?
Whitney: I do see some continuation. When I'm talking to customers, power and cooling continues to be a major issue. Here our BladeCenters are the densest in the industry. What we and customers have done is stuck meters and probes in BladeCenter versus competitors' blade servers. Our blades, whether at rest, medium or maximum utilization, are 20 to 30 percent more efficient. That's with probes on iron, not just modeling.

Second, consolidation and virtualization (work) is still a journey and represents a significant opportunity. All customers are looking for greater return on investment. When I meet a customer and go through a scenario with physical consolidation, virtualization, automation and grid, I ask customers, "Where are you in that spectrum?" Even today, Fortune 10 or 100 customers say, "I'm only a third of the way through." Some of that is because it's technical work. For large customers it's usually a governance issue as well; Intel-based servers are spread through the organization and different lines of business. Who owns it? Is corporate going to own it? Or is it, "It's my line of business and I want to keep it"?

Third, still continuing is the customers' desire to reduce their operating expenses. That's where the management tools?whether lights-out data center or being able to manage all my retail outlets remotely from a single site, whether I want to have automatic provisioning of blades based on business policies and work loads?are very contemporary issues.

So it's power and cooling, getting ROI--not having my server 15 percent-utilized but closer to 60 or 70 or 80 percent--and having a small team of people manage my servers.

What's different? We're going to see more 64-bit processors, more dual-core processors in the marketplace. I think this message of power and cooling has clearly gotten to the processor vendors. We're going to see processors more optimized for power and cooling. I think Intel has been vocal on things like Sossaman. I think we're at the peak now in terms of processor power requirements.

Q: Are we going to see big drops in processor power consumption, or just small amounts like 10 percent?
Whitney: I have expectations it'll be more than incremental.

Q: Opteron has some low-power benefits over Xeon. Do you foresee a time when you use Opteron in your mainstream business servers and not just your high-performance technical computing machines?
Whitney: There's lots of stuff in a server. The processor is responsible for about a third of the power requirements. The rest are generated by fans and other motors and mechanical devices. You can have an optimized processor, but the other thing is to optimize the rest of that pie--the other 50 to 60 to 70 percent. That's where, because of our packaging and cooling, IBM has made the investment.

For Opteron, we've been very consistent. We see AMD processors as very beneficial for specific types of applications--those that require high memory bandwidth and analytical applications. When we introduced the eServer 326, we said it was for HPC (the technical high-performance computing market), because that's what we saw. As I keep my eyes and ears to the marketplace, I see that HPC is becoming much more commercial. The analytical applications are becoming more prevalent in commercial business--whether it be drug design or risk mitigation or crash simulations.

Q: But what about for mainstream servers--for example running Microsoft Exchange or databases?
Whitney: I have not had customers come to me asking for that.

Q: HP and Sun think Opterons are good for mainstream servers.
Whitney: Other vendors don't have our x3 architecture. When you don't have the x3 architecture, to get performance levels, you have to look for other alternatives.

Q: What's behind the use of Sun's Solaris operating system on BladeCenter, and how actively will IBM support that?
Whitney: We are motivated by what the market wants. Many of our early adopters for BladeCenter were in financial services and telecommunications, and the customers said, "I'm migrating low-end Unix applications to Lintel." But then they'd say, "There's this the portfolio where we don't have capability, the programs are not there, we lost the documentation, the programs are not used often enough, that it's not cost justified for me to migrate it to Lintel. Can you offer a Solaris alternative?" We listened to market, and we're partnering with Sun.

Q: You've been leading xSeries for five years. Are you looking for a new challenge?
Whitney: I think this is the most exhilarating, fast-paced segment of the marketplace. There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction and a lot of work to be done. It's unique in terms of relations with suppliers, the partnerships you derive in the marketplace, the high-volume velocity from the supply-chain perspective. I truly find it highly energizing. As long as I'm having fun and IBM thinks I'm doing OK, I'm planning on staying.