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IBM: Our appliance servers smoke Ellison's 'phony baloney'

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IBM is spoiling for a fight with Oracle, as was abundantly in evidence at Big Blue's recent Investor Day at the company's TJ Watson Research Center north of New York City.

Thank heavens – otherwise server junkies might die of boredom.

IBM doesn't talk as much smack as Oracle does – or Sun Microsystems did - but that doesn't mean the egos of Big Blue's top brass are any smaller than the ones that Scott McNealy or Larry Ellison have displayed over the past several decades.

IBMers might not be billionaires who have made (or in some cases, like Sun's McNealy, lost) impressive fortunes, but they are part of a century-old machine that was kicking data-processing ass - and had the antitrust lawsuits to prove it – before Ellison figured out that if he stuck with Bob Miner, Oracle's other (and deceased) cofounder, he would get fabulously rich. IBM was already riding its third IT phase in the mid-1980s when McNealy saw the genius of the workstation that Andy Bechtolsheim wrought at Stanford and made sure that Bill Joy created excellent software for it.

It never pays to count IBM out, even when the company was flat broke and damned near bankrupt back in the early 1990s, after so many missteps in the mainframe, midrange, and PC businesses. That near-death experience transformed Big Blue and the people now running it - including president, CEO, and chairman Sam Palmisano - who lived through that experience and who now aim to guide the company to its 2015 revenue and profit goals.

After Louis Gerstner was tapped to run IBM in 1993, the company changed from one that proactively decided what was best for customers and wasted a lot of resources creating competing and overlapping products, to one that sells people skills as much as a more-focused portfolio of hardware and software - a portfolio that earns a lot more cash than the IBM of old.

Today's IBM knows which markets it needs to walk away from, and which ones it needs to sprint toward. And while its execution is never perfect, the Gerstner-Palmisano IBM is yielding better results than the Opel-Akers one ever did.

It would be stupid, however, to count Larry Ellison out. Ellison has said that he wants to build integrated systems – and Oracle has the money, time, and software stack to take on IBM from the top down. IBM doesn't have applications, but it does have control over a lot of systems churning a lot of data in a lot of the largest companies in the world.

At the company's recent investors confab, the leaders of IBM's Software and Systems Group tried to explain how Big Blue's efforts on the systems front is different from its competitors, and took pot shots at Oracle because that company, more than HP, is more of a long-term threat to Big Blue's systems hegemony among the largest IT shops.

IBM Research has its sights on Oracle, as well – and if you think that the Watson question-answer machine was just about playing Jeopardy!, then you haven't been paying attention to what people are doing with unstructured data that resides outside of the relational databases that both IBM and Oracle know better than any two companies on the planet.

Rod Adkins, senior vice president in charge of Big Blue's hardware-building Systems and Technology Group (STG), didn't divulge too much about the company's hardware plans for 2011. He did, however, say: "We will be doing a lot more work around pre-tested and pre-integrated capabilities."

Yes, IBMers really do talk like that.

Adkins added that IBM would be shifting from "point-type products" to "integrated solutions," and thus the go-to-market sales teams and the supply chain that both supplies parts for and often assembles these STG products will also have to change.

IBM plans to ship the Power7-based IH nodes used in the "Blue Waters" supercomputer being installed at the University of Illinois in the first half of the year. Updates to the Smart Analytic System appliances, which are based on x64, Power, and mainframe machines (depending on your taste) are also due before the end of June, as are updates to the x64 and Power CloudBurst appliances.

In the second half of the year, IBM will put out a midrange (Business Class as opposed to Enterprise Class) variant of the System zEnterprise 196 – let's call it the System zEnterprise 98 just for fun. Adkins also said that in the second half of this year, Big Blue would roll out a new "flexible form factor for systems," which he unfortunately did not explain very well, I think intentionally. It's hard to guess what he meant, and without more data, we're stuck – it could be just about anything.

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