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The worldwide server market grew by the largest margin in three years during the fourth quarter, according to early data from Gartner.

Total shipments surged 24 percent in the fourth quarter with 1.6 million units leaving the loading docks. This is the highest year-on-year gain since the fourth quarter of 2000 when sales jumped 32 percent. These figures are based on preliminary data from Gartner.

"These preliminary results suggest that the server market has recorded its fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit year-over-year unit growth," Gartner said. "Although some of this can be attributed to seasonal growth, there are signs that the increased spending predicted for 2004 is in fact occurring now, resulting in increased shipments for the industry."

HP continued to hold the worldwide lead in server sales; although among the large vendors, it was the only one to lose market share. By contrast, Sun Microsystems enjoyed unusually strong growth in the fourth quarter.

HP shipped a total of 461,615 servers during the quarter compared to 382,616 units in the period a year ago. But even with the increase in shipments, HP saw its market share slip to 29 percent from 30 percent last year.

Dell pumped out 318,500 servers in the quarter compared to 245,867 last year. Dell's market share increased to 20 percent from 19.2 percent. IBM's shipments surged to 273,527 units versus 197,083 in last year's Q4. IBM now holds 17.2 percent of the market compared to 15.4 percent last year.

Sun saw sales jump to 83,833 units in the quarter versus just 62,914 last year. The company holds 5.3 percent of the market compared to 4.9 percent last year. This is the first time in recent memory that Sun boosted overall sales. Fujitsu rounded out the top five, holding flat with 2.1 percent of the market.

Sun has yet to show up in Gartner's breakout of the x86 32-bit server market despite selling both Athlon blades and Xeon servers. Hitachi held the tenth spot in this market with 6,100 units shipped, putting Sun somewhere below this in the "other" category. ®

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