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Desktops

IBM's Itanium server goes on sale

Big Blue has begun selling its first major Itanium server, the four-processor x450, the company plans to announce Wednesday. And a larger sibling is due by the end of the year.

IBM has begun selling its first major Itanium server, the four-processor x450, the company plans to announce Wednesday. And a larger sibling that will accommodate as many as 16 processors is due by the end of the year.

The x450 uses the second-generation of Intel's Itanium chip family, the Itanium 2, linked to memory and with a variant of IBM's Enterprise X Architecture chipset. It's the first major system from IBM to support Intel's strategy of selling 64-bit Itanium processors for high-end servers requiring large amounts of memory, instead of the more conventional 32-bit Xeon chips.

However, IBM initially will sell the system not for general use but rather for certain programs such as housing large databases or extracting useful information from sales data, said Deepak Advani, vice president of high-end xSeries servers for IBM.

"We're picking the applications we believe will deliver a lot of value and customer benefit," Advani said. "The Itanium ecosystem is still being developed."

The x450's 16-processor comrade will use newer processors and a newer chipset, though. It will employ the third-generation Itanium 2 6M, code-named "Madison," and the second-generation version of the EXA. The two-phase introduction parallels how IBM debuted the EXA on Xeon servers, first with the four-processor x360, then with the 16-processor x440.

"Our plan starts with a four-way (server) now, introducing the scalable line later in this year, right after Madison comes out," Advani said.

The second-generation EXA chip also will be used in the forthcoming x445 server with as many as 32 Xeon processors.

The arrival of Itanium in IBM's servers means a substantial expansion of the number of processor families in Big Blue's total of four server lines. Its xSeries servers use Intel's Xeon and Itanium processors, its pSeries and iSeries use the Power4 processor and its predecessors, while its zSeries mainframe line uses a different IBM-designed processor.

Advani acknowledges that Itanium means additional complexity, but he argues that too much simplicity also can be a problem when "one-size-fits-all" product lines fail to cover all customer requirements. "Digital Equipment in the 1980s and Sun (Microsystems) in the 1990s showed that model is not sustainable," Advani said.

The acceptance of Itanium into the fold means IBM must contend not only with more server designs but also with more higher-level software. IBM is working on Itanium versions of server software including its DB2 database program and its WebSphere business software, each of which will be available in versions for Linux and for Windows.

But some believe it's worth the extra trouble.

"There's no doubt that Itanium machines will begin to take material market share away from other architectures going forward this year," said Aberdeen Group analyst Peter Kastner, though Xeon-based systems likely will bring in more revenue for at least the next five years.

Timing is everything
IBM had to release its Itanium product soon, given the plans it announced last week to sell some servers using AMD's Opteron processor, Kastner said.

"IBM had to have a strong Intel 32-bit and 64-bit product line in order not to confuse customers into thinking that there's some unannounced transition to AMD in the cards," Kastner said. And IBM's Itanium support trails that of rival Hewlett-Packard, "which is betting the company on Itanium," he added.

IBM had expected to put x450 on sale "early next year," but shipping the product earlier would have had limited success given that Big Blue expects most of the servers to use Windows. Microsoft only last week released Windows Server 2003, the first Microsoft operating system to support Itanium.

Prices for the x450 begin at $25,999 for a single-processor model, but IBM expects most customers to pay about $38,000 for a setup that includes two 1GHz Itanium 2 processors, each with 3MB of high-speed cache memory.

IBM for a time sold a server using the first member of the Itanium family--the "Merced" product that arrived late and performed poorly. But that system was geared not for real-world use but for developers who wanted to begin the process of rebuilding their software for the new chip, Advani said.

Intel's Itanium debut has been hampered by the fact that the processors can't effectively run the older software written for computers with Intel Pentium or Xeon chips. Intel is trying to address the issue with new software that lets the Itanium emulate the other chips.

IBM waited until this stage to release its Itanium server because not enough software was available, Advani said. "Our customers told us early on that hardware without accompanying software is nothing more than a heater," Advani said.