IBM ready to bring on the blades

IBM will make its second foray into the emerging blade server market later this year with a system that packs some of Intel Corp.'s most powerful processors in a compact casing.

IBM will roll out its first in-house designed blade server product dubbed BladeCenter in November, filling a gap left after it ended a reseller agreement with blade technology pioneer RLX Technologies Inc. Unlike most of the blade server designs currently available, IBM will use speedy Xeon processors from Intel in its new systems.

By going with the Xeon chips, IBM has made its blade products better suited for handling business applications and high end e-mail applications even though it made some trade-offs in how tightly the servers can be packed in a chassis, said Jeff Benck, director of xSeries marketing at IBM.

"Some of the competitors have used Pentium IIIs of ultra-low voltage mobile processors, but the customers we talked to that wanted to deploy applications on the blades wanted the latest performance that Intel can bring," Benck said. "They don't want to move to blades if they have to give up performance."

Blade servers are the next wave in a push among hardware makers to cram as many servers as possible in the smallest space. The ultra-thin servers are stripped down to their essential components and then plugged into a chassis that lets the servers share power and network connections. The combination of these techniques means that companies can pack more servers in their data centers and that administrators do not have to deal with as many cables cascading down the back of rack servers.

RLX and Hewlett-Packard Co. have dominated the blade market thus far with both companies introducing products well ahead of the competition. RLX has focused on selling densely packed blade systems that use less power-hungry chips from Transmeta Corp. and Intel and has done well in the high performance computing arena. HP sells systems based on more powerful Intel chips as an attempt to attract customers from the business sector.

Using higher-powered chips in a compact setting can take its toll on other components in a server due to the heat given off by the chips. With this in mind, RLX and HP picked chips that consumed as little power as possible in their dense designs. RLX can fit up to 336 of its low-power blade servers in a standard 42U rack, while HP can squeeze up to 280 servers in a rack with its lower-end systems.

IBM has come out with a higher-powered design that fits 14 dual-processor blades with either 2.0GHz or 2.4GHz Xeons in a chassis 7U (12.25 inches) high, equivalent to 84 blades per standard rack. Each blade can hold two 40G-byte IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) drives and support up to 8G bytes of memory. In addition, IBM has made it possible to connect the BladeCenter chassis into network attached storage (NAS) systems via Ethernet or into a storage area network (SAN) using a Fibre Channel adapter, Benck said.

"We believe a lot of customers will leverage network attached storage and Fibre Channel right out of the door and won't even want hard disks on the blades," he said.

The BladeCenter product uses the ServerWorks Inc. GC LE chipset, but IBM last week announced a deal with Intel to collaborate on future blade designs. However, Benck insisted that the tight work with Intel does not preclude IBM from using ServerWorks chipsets in future products.

IBM, based in Armonk, New York, expects its blade users to run some low-end applications for serving up Web pages and e-mail along with higher-end e-mail applications and some business software. In addition, the company hopes to tap the high-performance computing market.

IBM released an updated version of its Director management product along with the new blade servers. Version 4.1 of IBM Director includes support for the new hardware and tools for deploying applications across the systems, Benck said.

IBM will support Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server, Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG's Linux and Novell Inc.'s NetWare operating systems with the new blade servers.

IBM's BladeCenter product starts at US$1,879.

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