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IBM plans 2003 muscle servers

Though Big Blue still has some server releases to come this year, the tech giant is already focusing on its Intel server lines for next year--the fruit of a key overhaul.

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
4 min read
IBM is taking the long view for Intel-based servers.

The company is poised to release its first "blade" servers and 16-processor Intel-based systems in coming weeks. But right now Big Blue is more focused its Intel products for 2003, according to the head of IBM's Intel server group.

Among the parade of Intel server products scheduled for next year are a system with 32 Xeon chips, skinny "blade" servers with four Xeon processors apiece, and a line of Itanium 2 systems that start with four processors and move up to 16, said Susan Whitney, general manager of IBM's xSeries group.

The company also plans to release blade servers that commingle the Intel server line with IBM's Unix line by plugging IBM's Power chips into an Intel blade chassis.

The new products reflect a change for IBM. The company rose to prominence by selling high-end networked server computers, and for years gave short shrift to models using Intel processors.

But in 1998, seeing the steady improvement in and use of Intel chips and Microsoft operating systems, the company concluded it was time to do something about its mediocre Intel server line, then called NetFinity and now called xSeries. The move was accelerated when IBM got the Linux religion in 2000.

The first major results of the overhaul plan, known as the X Architecture project, started arriving this year with the x440 server, which comes with eight processors. By late December, a 16-processor version will be generally available, Whitney said.

The same EXA chipset that wires together the main processors in the x440 is also used in an Itanium version. The first versions of that system, using four Itanium 2 processors, will be released "beginning early next year," Whitney said. Later in 2003, the system will expand to accommodate 16 Itanium processors.

The x440 with Xeon processors also is due for a boost. Whitney said a 32-processor version is slated for release in 2003. IBM earlier had spoken of achieving that 32-processor goal through a successor to EXA called EXA2, but Whitney said the 32-processor system will be made of four eight-processor cabinets joined with high-speed links.

The activity at IBM isn't lost on competitors, including Hewlett-Packard, which garners more revenue than any other Intel server seller.

Dell Computer's Intel servers have been getting attention for efficiency and price, but HP is more worried about the "sleeping giant," IBM, said Tim Golden, director of marketing for HP's Intel servers.

"The reality is that the better competitor is IBM," Golden said in an interview. "They're doing a lot of things right."

Slicing the pie
Market-share figures released Wednesday by research firm IDC bear out Golden's view of Big Blue. According to the IDC report, HP racked up 32 percent of the $4.3 billion in sales of Intel servers worldwide in the third quarter of 2002. Dell claimed 21 percent and IBM, 17 percent. Growth trends favor IBM and Dell, though, IDC researchers said.

IBM's revenue increased 22 percent from the year-ago quarter, Dell's rose 8 percent, but HP's dropped 7 percent.

For eight-processor servers, HP was king of the heap in the third quarter a year ago with 50 percent of sales, beating out IBM's 15 percent. In the same quarter this year, IBM had 42 percent and HP 40 percent in the market, valued at $185 million, IDC said. IBM's eight-processor server revenue increased from $28 million in the third quarter of 2001 to $63 million this year.

Behind this reversal of fortune, to some extent, were the particulars of new Intel processors. IBM's x440 server was able to use the new-generation Xeon MP, but HP decided to skip that product in its coming "F8" chipset-based servers because the chip's performance in multiprocessor servers didn't meet expectations.

Specifically, the first Xeon MP had less high-speed cache memory than its predecessor; IBM compensated with a huge 32MB cache in the x440.

HP had said that its F8-based machines were awaiting a new Xeon with 2MB of cache memory. Golden said the servers, code-named Lightning 2, will ship in the first quarter of 2003. The new 2MB cache Xeon MP, code-named Gallatin, is available now.

Blades are another area of activity. IBM has shipped 200 blade servers thus far to early customers including AOL Time Warner, which, it said, is using them to run America Online e-mail software. Whitney said its blade servers will be generally available "in a couple of weeks."

IBM's first blade systems, named BladeCenter, use dual Xeon processors. Coming in 2003 will be blades with four Xeons, better for higher-powered tasks such as running large Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers.

If a customer needs more than a handful of dual-Xeon systems, using a BladeCenter will be less expensive than buying separate rack-mounted servers, Whitney said.

The BladeCenter chassis also accommodates blades using IBM's Power processor, and IBM will begin selling that product next year. Individual blades cost $1,879 apiece; the chassis, including a network switch, starts at $2,789.

On blades, Linux is a popular operating system, Whitney said, with about half of customers using the Unix clone. "We see Linux as a big driver in the blades," she said.

A major perceived barrier to Linux's adoption on high-end servers is its ability to take advantage of all processors in a system. Linux can exploit eight-processor servers today, and in some emerging markets, it's used on those systems. In China, for example, "half of eight-way servers are Linux," Whitney said.