As expected, IBM announced the Netfinity A100, code-named "Pinehurst." It's the first in a series of server appliances--computers designed to do a specific job, usually offering lower cost or higher performance than general-purpose machines.
The new server uses a version of Windows 2000 Advanced Server that's missing some features not useful for Web serving, a Microsoft spokesman said. Though Microsoft wouldn't comment on whether other companies would be using the software, Piper Jaffray analyst Amir Ahari said Dell plans to use a pared-down version of Windows 2000 for the PowerApp server appliance line it plans to announce next week.
"If one of these companies is working with Microsoft, they all are," he said.
Server appliances are a growing market that increasingly is populated by the established server companies as well as new arrivals such as start-up Cobalt Networks. The appliances are used by many different types of customers, but the A100 is aimed at Internet service providers or companies who need to set up dozens or hundreds of the machines to deal with requests pouring in from the Internet.
One key feature for that market is selling slim servers. The A100 is based on the Network Engines design IBM licensed. The machine is 1.75 inches thick, a measurement known as 1U. The A100 has two Pentium III processors running at 650 MHz.
"The Holy Grail is that 1U form factor. That's the beauty pageant winner for Internet service providers," Ahari said. Though Dell and Compaq are working on 1U designs, the only companies that sell such computers in significant quantity are Cobalt, IBM and Network Engines, Ahari said.
The big challenge for the design is dealing with the heat the chips generate. The Network Engines design has seven fans, Ahari said. To deal with the heat, people often leave gaps after every fifth server in a stack to let more air flow around the computers.
The IBM machines cost less than $6,000, though IBM discounts the price when a company buys them in large quantities. "It's a bit more expensive than a Linux box, but not that outrageous," said Ahari.
The IBM-Microsoft product follows a server appliance Intel sells with another variant of Windows, Embedded Windows NT. That machine is designed to handle more tasks, such as housing email and handling print jobs, but still be easy to use.
One of Microsoft's biggest competitors in the server appliance market is Linux, analysts say. Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system, is inexpensive and relatively robust. Other competitors include Novell and various proprietary operating systems.
"Linux is obviously what I'm really bullish about. You can twist it and bend it and cut it and slice it and dice it however you want, and you'll still have a stable operating system in the background," Ahari said. With Linux, a programmer will start with a core and add necessary layers, whereas Windows is the other way around. "It's very big. It's really never been designed to be slimmed or enhanced."
IBM and Dell's server appliance efforts both will use a variety of operating systems.