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IBM plans better blades for 2003

Big Blue is counting on several more powerful blade servers this year, including models with four Xeon chips and models with two of IBM's own Power processors.

SAN FRANCISCO--IBM has sold 5,000 "blade" servers since launching its BladeCenter product less than three months ago, and the computing giant plans to announce several new, more powerful models this year, the company said Tuesday.

Coming in the second half of 2003 will be models with four Xeon processors and models with two of IBM's own Power processors,

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the chips used in its Unix server line, said Jeff Benck, director of marketing for IBM's xSeries line of Intel processor-based servers. The Power blades, first demonstrated in October, will use the PowerPC 970 processor. The 1.8GHz processor is expected to arrive later this year, IBM said.

In the longer term, though, IBM has even grander ambitions. It's possible that a special link could join two four-processor blade servers into an eight-processor system. The approach would use a variant of IBM's EXA "Summit" chipset, which can use high-speed cables to link four-processor groups into eight-, 12- and 16-processor x440 servers, Benck said in an interview.

"We have the technology to create blades that plug in to create larger symmetrical multiprocessor servers," he said.

Blade servers slide side by side into a single chassis like books in a bookshelf, a design that ultimately could prove more flexible for administrators trying to adjust what computing jobs run on what servers. IBM's forthcoming systems highlight the trend away from comparatively feeble initial blades to more powerful models that can handle a much broader array of computing tasks.

IBM disclosed the plans just a day after rival Sun Microsystems announced its first blade products, models with a single UltraSparc processor that will begin arriving in April and models with a single Intel-compatible processor to arrive midyear. Sun plans its first dual-processor blade systems--models that will use Intel-compatible processors--in the second half of 2003.

Hewlett-Packard is the company IBM has its eyes on, though, Benck said. HP said it will begin shipping on March 11 its own four-Xeon blades.

"I think HP is a more formidable competitor in blades," Benck said, though criticizing HP's design for not being any better than standalone four-processor systems.

While start-up pioneered four-processor blades for certain niche markets, HP will be the first mainstream server maker to release four-processor systems. However, its four-processor blades are more brick-shaped products; only two will fit side by side in a single 10.5-inch-tall enclosure.

IBM's blades fit within a 12.25-inch-tall enclosure. A total of 14 two-processor blades, each about 1.25 inches wide, fit into the cabinet, and the Power blades will be the same width, Benck said. The four-processor blades will be twice that thickness.

IBM is confident its chassis will accommodate many future blade models. Next week, the company's financing division plans to announce a five-year lease option for the BladeCenter chassis.

Benck said IBM also is working on improving its Director management software. In the second half of 2003, the company will have integrated VMware software into Director, he said. VMware's software lets several operating systems run simultaneously on the same server.

About half of the blades shipped so far use Linux, Benck said. In the first year, the company expects about 40 percent to run Linux and 60 percent to run Windows.

"We've seen a much higher propensity for Linux than we had predicted," he said.