IBM plans new top-end Xeon servers this year

Big Blue is working on a new Intel-based multiprocessor machine--and a new program to woo software companies.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
IBM plans to release its fourth-generation high-end Intel-based server this year, a model geared for use with the quad-core "Tigerton" Xeon processor, and will help software companies better support machines of its ilk.

Intel's "MP" Xeon processors, designed for systems with four or more processors, are the brains of IBM's higher-end x86 servers. But IBM supplies the nervous system in the form of a chipset that links the processors to memory, networking, storage and the other processors.

The fourth-generation chipset, called X4, will be released along with Intel's new "Tigerton" Xeon in the second half of 2007, said Jay Bretzmann, marketing manager for IBM's high-end x86 servers. That quad-core chip is the first MP model using Intel's competitive Core architecture.

"The X4 will be our quad-core generation," Bretzmann said. IBM's chipset is used in four-processor systems that stand alone or that can be cabled together into larger multiprocessor configurations.

Big Blue placed a big bet on the high-end Xeon market in the late 1990s with its X Architecture plan, under which it harnessed engineers from its higher-end server groups to create an in-house x86 server design. IBM expects to profit from the expanding use of x86 servers--those with Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--and the X Architecture had a particular focus on high-end servers.

And the X4 systems will be important for several reasons: to help Intel reclaim ground lost to AMD in higher-end x86 chips, to help IBM take on x86 leader HP, and to help promote the concept of high-end x86 servers in general against naysayers such as Dell.

IBM's current X3 chipset, code-named Hurricane, supports configurations with as many as 32 processors. X4 will continue that approach, Bretzmann said, though IBM will limit configurations to the sizes that Linux and Windows can support.

"The hardware will be there. Whether there are enough threads in the operating system to harvest it remains to be seen," Bretzmann said. Windows and Linux technically today support as many as 32 processors, but there is relatively little demand for such products.

High-profit market
The market for servers with four or more x86 processors isn't nearly as large as the two-processor market, said IDC analyst Michelle Bailey, but there's a good reason to be in it.

"It's not a high-growth market, but it's a very profitable market," Bailey said. In 2006, 5 percent of x86 servers shipped had four or more processors, but those accounted for a disproportionately large $5.5 billion of the $25.8 billion in sales that year. The market grew slightly from $24.6 billion in 2005, and Bailey said it's expected to remain a constant fraction of the overall x86 spending through 2011.

Sun Microsystems, a relative newcomer to the x86 server market, agrees with IBM's belief that larger x86 systems are worth selling. But in 2003, Dell canceled a planned eight-Xeon server, and king of the x86 server hill Hewlett-Packard followed suit in 2005.

While HP doesn't sell eight-processor Xeon servers anymore, it's still tops when it comes to multiprocessor x86 machines. IBM hopes to change that. "We started the year off at a large delta to HP and continued to progress throughout the year, catching up share until the fourth quarter showed that it's a neck-in-neck race," Bretzmann said.

Dell just doesn't think there's much of a market beyond four processors, and the advent of multicore processors is reinforcing its belief.

"Because of multicore processing, customers are moving from multisocket servers with four, eight or sixteen (processor sockets) down to two-socket and even one-socket servers," said Jay Parker, director of Dell's PowerEdge server group. It's better to put a small number of multicore processors in a small number of processor sockets rather than use bigger machines of the traditional symmetrical multiprocessor (SMP) approach, he said.

"The hardware is half the cost, software licensing is dramatically lower, it has better energy efficiency and better density," Parker said.

Luring software partners
IBM, which has decades of experience selling big multiprocessor servers, unsurprisingly sees things differently. And it's not passively waiting for the market to develop.

In May, the company plans to unveil a new initiative called the Scalebuilder Program, Bretzmann said. The object is to encourage independent software vendors (ISVs) to improve how well their code can take advantage of multiprocessor or multicore systems. From a software perspective, both those designs pose the same challenge: being able to run many jobs in parallel.

"It's a program to get resources to ISVs so they can increase the parallelism of their code," Bretzmann said.

And although IBM has plenty of servers that don't use x86 chips, the company believes that the chip family's pervasiveness means most server software makers will need to support it broadly.

"x86 is going to be 80 percent of everything. It already is," Bretzmann said. "Don't you think you want that as your primary development platform?"

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