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Tech giants team to push server "clusters"

IBM and Microsoft partner to offer the servers at a discounted price, a harbinger of things to come for Intel-based computers.

IBM and Microsoft have joined to offer prepackaged two-computer "clusters" of servers at a discounted price, a harbinger of things to come for Intel-based computers.

One variety of clustering lets one computer take over when another fails. Another shares tasks among a group of computers, effectively making one larger, faster computer out of a group of smaller ones. Either way, Intel is interested in clustering because it allows computers using its chips to penetrate new, high-profit markets.

Intel's plans for clustering will get even more aggressive when systems based on its new Itanium chip arrive later this year, sources close to the company have said. The 64-bit nature of the Itanium chip will allow it to manage much larger databases and perform calculations much faster, making it a good match for Intel's clustering push.

Intel is expected to pump lots of money into research, development and marketing for clusters, sources have said.

Clustering has been around for years, but with Intel servers running either Windows or Linux, it's only beginning to catch up with Unix clustering, said Giga Information Group analyst Richard Fichera. Now, however, clustering is becoming an increasingly mainstream product.

"As a percentage of shipments, it's fairly small, but it's growing rapidly," Fichera said.

Fichera expects Intel to invest in the software underpinnings that make clustering possible.

Compaq and Santa Cruz Operations have strong Unix clustering products, and Sun is scheduled to upgrade its own offering, "Full Moon," in November, a source familiar with the company's plans said.

But clusters are expensive. As part of an effort to reduce the sticker shock that often deters customers from these higher-end server systems, IBM and Microsoft are evenly splitting the cost of a 20 percent discount, said Alex Yost, manager of marketing for IBM's Netfinity server line.

"We each took a piece out of the price," he said. "Nobody has the same deal with Microsoft that we've got."

One cluster product, using the two-processor 5100, will have a starting price of $19,499, Yost said. The rack-mounted 4500r, another two-processor machine, will have prices starting at $24,999, including a flat-panel monitor.

Despite the discounts, "We're still profitable on the individual units," Yost said, because the customers still will be buying more expensive and powerful configurations.

The target market for the servers is small and mid-sized businesses that wouldn't otherwise be inclined to pay for high-end features such as clustering. Another is the branch offices of larger corporations that would prefer clustering for sites with minimal technical support expertise. "This is designed to bring clustering to the masses," Yost said.

One reason IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and others are interested in clustering is that companies can often sell services such as customization or support along with the hardware, Fichera said. That strategy appeals in particular to services-strong companies such as IBM or EMC's Data General.

"It makes sense to discount the cluster," Fichera said. "It's probably an opportunity for them to pull through professional services."

The IBM approach is designed for "failover," in which one computer takes over for another.

Another popular way to use clusters is in a "Beowulf" configuration, which distributes mathematical calculations among a host of networked computers. Compaq's high-performance Alpha chip is particularly popular for this method, but Intel's Itanium will provide stronger competition than the current Intel chips.