IBM charges into server appliance market

Big Blue plans to introduce a new line of lower-cost, single-purpose Unix servers code-named Pizzazz in September.

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IBM plans to introduce a new line of lower-cost, single-purpose Unix servers code-named Pizzazz in September, the company said.

The machines are the latest member of the "server appliance" trend: Machines designed to accomplish a single computing task very well. Server appliances, also called "thin servers," offer some useful options to companies--high performance, low maintenance, and ease of installation. The single tasks they are designed to do include serving up Web pages, handling email, and hosting databases.

Some big names are joining the market. Compaq Computer has announced its TaskSmart line, Sun is working on its super-thin "Flapjack" servers, and several smaller companies such as Network Appliance, Cobalt Networks, Encanto, and Auspex have products of their own.

Analysts have said that the server Compaq joins server appliance market appliance market has promise, because the machines offer higher performance and a lower maintenance cost. While it isn't likely that single-purpose machines will supplant general-purpose servers, analysts predict server-appliance sales will bite a chunk out of traditional server revenue.

Merrill Lynch, in particular, has predicted that server appliance sales will grow from $1.1 billion in 1997 to $16 billion in 2002.

IBM's Pizzazz machines will be designed as the foundation for several different server-appliance tasks, such as delivering Web pages or acting as firewalls to protect networks from outsiders, said Tim Dougherty, RS/6000 e-business product manager at IBM.

The Pizzazz computers will become the lowest-priced of the RS/6000 server line, which use Power architecture chips and which run IBM's AIX version of the Unix operating system. IBM is working with LinuxPPC to make sure the computers can use the Linux operating system as well.

While some server appliances are expected to cost less than general-purpose servers, they aren't all going to be cheap. For example, Network Appliance's high-speed file servers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the least expensive of Compaq's TaskSmart line will cost about $10,000.

Instead, money will be saved because server appliances are less expensive to install and maintain, said Amir Ahari, an analyst with International Data Corporation. In a survey of 255 companies, IDC found that buying servers accounted for only 5 to 6 percent of the total server cost.

The single-processor Pizzazz machines will be relatively thin--3.5 inches--and will be rack-mountable, a feature designed to appeal to Internet service providers (ISPs) who need to stack lots of servers in a high-density arrangement, Dougherty said. In addition, IBM is aiming the machines at application service providers (ASPs), which rent out access to complex software so companies don't have to manage it themselves.

Although Pizzazz pricing hasn't been set yet, "You can assume it would be cheaper than what you'd normally buy at the low end of the RS/6000 line," Dougherty said. "This is a good vehicle for us to get a good foothold into the ISP market space as well as the ASP marketplace."

IBM also boosting high end
Also in September, IBM plans to unveil the S80 server, a new high-end successor to the S70A server line, Dougherty said. The machine is designed for large-scale business jobs such as enterprise resource planning.

"We're expecting to between double and triple performance," Dougherty said.

The S80 server will be able to use 24 processors, twice the number in the S70A, Dougherty said. Though he wouldn't say which chip the machine will use, he did say it would use IBM's copper interconnect technology. Because copper transmits electrical current more easily than the existing aluminum technology, copper-based chips can run at faster speeds without overheating.

IBM is billing RS/6000 boxes as good at "deep computing," using computers to reveal important information that's not necessarily evident to the average person. For example, IBM said plumbing equipment wholesaler Hirsch Pipe and Supply Company, which replaced its Hewlett-Packard 9000 computer with an IBM S70 last fall, was able to sift through data to find the cause of a mysterious projected 40 percent sales drop for a popular water heater. The company traced the problem to a special pricing deal was set to expire prematurely.

Revamping AIX
With the other announcements, IBM also will release a new version of the AIX operating system, 4.3.3, that will allow more simultaneous users and more processing transactions per minute, he said.

AIX will be the core of the new joint IBM-Santa Cruz Operation-Sequent project called Monterey to merge IBM's and SCO's Unix products into a single operating system that will work on system that use either IBM's Power chips or Intel's IA-64 chips. AIX 4.3.3 will be the beginning of the first step in that merger, Dougherty said.

Monterey is scheduled to ship in the fourth quarter of 2000, timed to arrive with the first IA-64 chip, code-named Merced, said Jonathan Goldstine, program director for AIX strategy at IBM.

SCO, with its UnixWare software, brings its experience in running Unix on Intel chips to the table, Goldstine said. Sequent, with its Dynix/ptx version of Unix, brings the software for letting many processors share the same memory.

With Monterey available at Merced's arrival, Goldstine said, IBM will have its bases covered whether Merced becomes widely adopted or instead is used as a mere development system so software companies can prepare their software for future IA-64 chips.