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IBM's blade server plans for 2006 include a new Infiniband-boosted chassis, improved management software and better iSCSI support. Oh yeah, IBM would like to beat HP to a pulp as well.

Sometime in 2006, IBM will roll out a second blade chassis meant to complement the existing BladeCenter enclosure. This product should address a pressing concern held by customers for better I/O and bandwidth performance on certain applications. Old and new blade servers will be able to slot into either the standard BladeCenter chassis or the new one, said Doug Balog, IBM's VP in charge of blade servers, during an interview.

Balog declined to say who IBM is teaming with on the 4x Infiniband chassis but did confirm that the company "has been working with partners around the networking part of it." IBM currently resells Cisco's line of Infiniband-based server switch gear that was acquired from Topspin.

Also in 2006, IBM will outfit blades with Intel's dual-core Dempsey chip. It has decided against putting Paxville - aka Hot Carl - into Xeon blades for the moment, which is probably a safety measure for customers. In the first half of 2006, customers will also find dual-core PowerPC 970MP-based blades.

On the software front, IBM will move away from its proprietary manager module toward a "standards-based" set of code that has improved failure detection and logging tools. In addition, IBM expects that customers will be able to use an iSCSI software initiator in 2006. IBM has done the initial work on this code and believes that Microsoft and Linux makers will support the software in their OSes.

IBM has been hammering away at this blade server thing for awhile and has one of the broadest portfolios with Power, Opteron and Xeon systems that plug into the BladeCenter chassis. Overall, the blade market should hit $2bn in 2005 and stretch to $3bn in 2006, according to notorious forecaster IDC. IBM owns about 40 per cent of the blade market with HP taking close to 35 per cent. Some start-ups and laggards split the rest of the sales.

It's been a bit comical to see Sun Microsystems and Dell flounder on either side of IBM and HP, missing out on this growing market. Sun pulled its blade server line this year, leaving customers with an end-of-lifed chassis. It's expected to roll out Opteron-based systems next year. Similarly, Dell danced on the edges of the blade market and then revitalized its efforts last year with a product that has sold fairly well.

IBM claims that Dell lacks the technical expertise needed to assist customers with complex blade setups. "Dell doesn't have the support structure to handle issues here. It is not a space they do well in," Balog said.

And Sun? Well Sun not selling blade servers certainly makes competing against the R&D and support-savvy rival pretty easy.

The muted presence of Dell and Sun leaves IBM and HP with plenty of room to squabble, and they do so very vocally. After all, blade sales present a great high-margin opportunity for the vendors, making them prized items.

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