IBM preps Opteron blade, backs off Itanium

IBM has taken a step toward Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Opteron processor and a step back from the Itanium chip produced by Intel Corp.

At IBM's PartnerWorld conference in Las Vegas recently, attendees were given a sneak peek at the company's first Opteron blade server. The system was briefly shown on stage during a keynote address by William Zeitler, senior vice president of IBM's Systems and Technology Group.

Though IBM didn't provide technical details on the system,company executives have in the past hinted that this server will support AMD's upcoming dual-core Opteron processor, which is expected in the second half of this year. "There are clearly customers who have asked for AMD blades," said IBM General Manager of xSeries Susan Whitney in a December interview with the IDG News Service. "AMD has their own product road map for dual-core. That might be a good time to bring a new product to market."

IBM was the first major vendor to ship an Opteron-based system, but the company's Opteron systems have been designed for a narrow range of uses, and rivals Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. now offer a much broader portfolio of Opteron systems.

"IBM clearly was the first guy in the pool with Opteron, " said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64 in Saratoga, Calif. "But I think they've tried to stay in the shallow end. For whatever reason, they've never moved the Opteron product into their mainstream xSeries line."

It's significant that IBM is readying what will be its first Opteron server targeted at the enterprise and may even presage a broader line of Opteron products from the company, Brookwood said. "An Opteron blade from IBM says maybe they realize that their enterprise customers do want this," he said. "Who knows, maybe we'll see an Opteron-based xSeries box eventually."

The Opteron blade preview came just one week after IBM unveiled its new X3 server architecture, which, unlike its predecessor, does not support Intel's Itanium processor. Without an X3 chip set for its Itanium servers, analysts say it's unlikely that IBM will bring a new system to market before Intel releases its next Itanium chip set, expected sometime after 2006.

"IBM has elected not to spend a lot of money developing their own Itanium chip set," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. "Frankly, Itanium is not a strategic product for IBM today."

Still, IBM's Whitney disputed the notion that her company is abandoning Itanium altogether. "There is a market opportunity for Itanium," she said in an interview at PartnerWorld this week. "Some of the largest SAP systems are running on IBM Itanium systems."

Whitney declined to say whether or not IBM plans to develop new systems based on Itanium.

Haff agreed that IBM hasn't completely abandoned Itanium, and he suggested that demand for 64-bit systems running Microsoft's Windows operating system could prompt Whitney's division to invest more heavily in Itanium or Opteron. "I'm sure the xSeries options are all open with respect to Opteron and Itanium," he said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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