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IBM names new Unix server chief

The company appoints Val Rahmani, a 20-year IBM veteran, to lead its reinvigorated Unix server division at a key moment, as Big Blue stands to gain over rivals.

IBM has named Val Rahmani, a 20-year IBM veteran, to lead its reinvigorated Unix server division at a key moment, as Big Blue stands to gain over rivals Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

Rahmani, who was handpicked to work by Chief Executive Lou Gerstner's side in 1996, takes over the division as Sun and HP are being punished by a declining economy and as IBM has a fresh new Unix server product line.

Rahmani's arrival signals a shift from product development, as IBM has caught up to Sun, to product marketing.

"I'm fortunate enough to come on to this team just when we have all the products out," Rahmani said in an interview. "I think our biggest challenge is making sure all our customers know what we've done with the product line."

Rahmani takes over from Rod Adkins, who rebuilt IBM's "pSeries" Unix server products and credibility after Big Blue was caught flat-footed by the rise of Sun. Adkins will take over IBM's Pervasive Computing group, which works on products for an era when everything from cars to clothes will have computing capability.

"Given how superlatively the pSeries has done on Adkins' watch--vs. how superlatively mediocre they were before he arrived there--Rod is clearly one of IBM's best and brightest," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

Sun filled the void left when servers using Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows software failed to live up to promises, boosting Sun to the top of the Unix server market. In 2000, that market had $29 billion in sales, according to research firm IDC, the largest fraction of the overall $60 billion server market.

IBM has a growing part of that market and hopes to gain more with its new top-end 32-processor Regatta server.

One complication IBM faces is managing its multiple server lines. The Unix server line, while powerful, ranks below the stalwart zSeries mainframe products and above the xSeries Intel servers. But Unix servers are gaining mainframe power and attributes, and Intel servers are catching up to Unix models.

The scene is complicated by IBM's special-purpose iSeries line, which uses the same hardware but different software from the Unix server line.

IBM deals with this potential overlap--which affects product marketing and sales as well as development--in frequent meetings by top executives. Rahmani said she meets with the general managers of the iSeries, xSeries and zSeries product lines three times a week.

"We're all very close," she said. Each of those executives handles some marketing tasks that apply to the entire product lineup, not just to individual fiefdoms, she added.

Rahmani also has some experience with the other divisions. Although her work in 1994 and 1995 was with the Unix server division, she led mainframe activities in Europe in 1998. Between the two positions, she was an executive assistant to Gerstner--not a secretarial post, but rather a position where choice executives spend time in the top executive ranks.

More recently, she has worked with groups selling servers for mobile and wireless systems to telecommunications companies, first in Europe, then worldwide.

"I think there's also a benefit to bringing a slightly different viewpoint," she said of her travels through IBM.