IBM Itanium servers coming by early 2003

Big Blue will debut its first homegrown Itanium 2 servers by the first quarter of 2003, an important step in the long-awaited arrival of the high-end Intel chip family.

Stephen Shankland
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IBM will debut its first homegrown Itanium 2 servers by the first quarter of 2003, an important step in the long-awaited arrival of the high-end Intel chip family.

IBM has some final testing to work on a version of the x440 server that uses four Itanium 2 processors connected with IBM's EXA chipset, said Brian Sanders, director of marketing for IBM's xSeries Intel-based servers. Then, depending on customer demand, IBM will begin making the systems in quantity either in the end of 2002 or early 2003, he said.

"We'll be in volume in the first quarter," Sanders said in a Wednesday interview. "We'll initially release it as a four-way. Then in the first or second quarter of next year, we'll take it up to the full capabilities of EXA," an x440 with as many as 16 Itanium 2 processors.

The new server, a system with extensive IBM engineering, is an important step in the gradual development of a full suite of hardware and software around Intel's new Itanium processor line. Itanium servers have yet to make much of a mark in the world; market research firm Gartner Dataquest estimates that only 50,000 will be sold in 2004 and 168,000 in 2006, a tiny fraction of the millions of lower-end Intel processors such as Xeon and Pentium.

IBM isn't likely to see high-volume sales of Itanium servers any time soon because customers and computer companies aren't yet familiar with the system, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It's a demand-side issue at the moment. These things tend to take awhile to ramp," he said.

The Itanium family, which arrived years later than Intel had hoped, is designed to take on established high-end processors such as UltraSparc from Sun Microsystems and Power from IBM. But with the Itanium 2 that debuted this year, Intel has started building up a track record of competitive performance scores and high-end server designs.

Servers designed to accommodate the Itanium 2 chip also will work with its two sequels, code-named Madison and Montecito and arriving in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Meanwhile, IBM continues to work on another version of the x440 that uses Intel's Xeon MP processor. That product sells today in an eight-processor configuration and will be sold in a 12- or 16-processor configuration later this fall, somewhat later than IBM originally hoped.

Intel servers are a relative novelty at IBM, which until the late 1990s favored its higher-end server families. Now, though, IBM has solid Intel servers, Eunice said, though most of the customer interest will be in the EXA servers and in IBM's new thin "blade" servers.

IBM is working to bolster other parts of the computing ecosystem that's necessary to get Intel servers to catch on for higher-end tasks such as running business and inventory software from SAP or J.D. Edwards, or data-analysis software from SAS Institute.

IBM on Thursday will unveil an expanded partnership with Microsoft and Intel to help customers try out these software packages on x440 systems. The work will take place at an IBM lab in Kirkland, Wash., Sanders said, part of an existing IBM facility where IBM engineers help Microsoft improve its operating system software.

About 10 to 12 support staff from the Kirkland center's 130 employees will work at the new office, helping three or four customers at a time try out the x440 servers and Windows, Sanders said. Microsoft and Intel engineers will be on call to help out, he added.

IBM doesn't have a comparable facility for helping customers use the Linux operating system, he said. However, the company is helping customers translate and test their software with Linux, and the company has established a center in New York for financial services companies to try out Linux.

"Linux on the x440 is very good in the four- to eight-way space," but more work is needed for systems with more processors, he added.

IBM also is looking forward to the next version of Windows for servers, called .Net Server 2003. Optimizations in the new version for high-end multiprocessor servers improve performance 15 percent to 30 percent over the current Windows 2000 software, Sanders said.