IBM Tuesday continued to pepper the hardware landscape with server blade announcements, as the Armonk, N.Y. firm unveiled its thinnest server to date and named AOL Time Warner as its one of its new major customers. Big Blue is positioning the blade as one of the most powerful in a sector populated by products from HP, Compaq and Dell.
IBM is gearing its eServer BladeCenter line for the enterprise, to help businesses pare back the total cost of ownership. As many as 84 blades can fit into the BladeCenter rack chassis, making the technology a true plug-and-play design.
Borrowing features across Big Blue's server line, IBM BladeCenter offers the enterprises the ability to purchase redundant hot-swap cooling, power and management modules as well as other automatic failover components, so there is no single point of failure.
In another key development, the IBM system supports integrated features such as optional fibre switches, which reduces the barrier to entry for fibre connect SAN storage. BladeCenter paves the way for future input/ouput capabilities such as InfiniBand and networking upgrades.
In true competitive fashion, Jeff Benck, director of IBM eServer xSeries, noted that its new BladeCenter capacity fits 36 more blades per rack than a competing HP ProLiant BL20p system. Moreover, he noted that Big Blue's new system is faster than HP's system because it uses the Intel Xeon processor. HP systems, like many others, use Intel's Pentium 3 processor.
HP, which said it recently reached a milestone in its enterprise blade server product line by becoming the first vendor to surpass 1,800 blades sales per month, fired back early Tuesday.
HP spokesman Tim Willeford said: "The HP ProLiant BL20p server provides superior levels of availability and system level performance for true enterprise class applications. When configuring the IBM blade solution to include these key features, the actual density of the IBM solution is less than the BL20p (only 42 IBM blades vs. 48 HP blades)."
Dr. Norman Koo, Executive Director at AOL Time Warner, said BladeCenter appeared to be a good fit for many of its applications, although this does not necessarily mean that IBM will be the exclusive provider of blades for the giant.
"We expect to deploy a considerable number of integrated enterprise blade solutions across AOL Time Warner in order to maintain our competitive edge and simplify our infrastructure," Koos said.
Benck told internetnews.com that AOL had tested its BladeCenter in several divisions before making a decision. Benck declined to say how many BladeCenter systems AOL purchased but noted that AOL was interested in BladeCenter for its potential to accommodate advanced networking solutions, such as going beyond a Layer 2 switch. On this note, IBM is working closely with Cisco and Nortel.
IBM has also received support for its BladeCenter from Microsoft, which vowed to bring out Microsoft Exchange 2000 software on BladeCenter later this quarter.
Giga Information Group analyst Richard Fichera counted the deal as another win for IBM, which just last week agreed to team on with Intel on blade server research and development.
"In general, assuming that you are not sacrificing features or performance and can manage them, more is better. IBM's blades are very powerful 2-way SMPs, more powerful than Compaq's," Fichera told internetnews.com. "I'm impressed with the whole package. While Compaq may catch up in the next couple of quarters, right now IBM has a slight edge - more powerful blades, more storage options, higher density, FC [fibre channel] switch option."
Big Blue also took the occasion to announce a refresh for its management software, IBM Director 4.1. This software provides customers with autonomic blade management including a single point of deployment and management. It also includes automated set-up and configuration wizards to deploy and maintain hundreds of blades.
Fichera approved of this as well: "Their management software looks very very good, and well-integrated with the rest of the product line, negating an advantage that I thought Compaq might have had. However, from a strategic perspective, Compaq's offering and road map is strong enough that I would not expect long-standing Compaq partners to abandon Compaq just because IBM has a lead now in blades."
Slated to ship in November at a base price of $1,879, IBM BladeCenter will support Linux, Microsoft Windows and Novell NetWare.