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IBM's PureSystems mod boxes bust kilo-customer barrier

Tough to beat the Cisco UCS ramp, though

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Every market has its own psychological barrier, and for IBM systems the magic number seems to be 1,000. As part of the recent tweaks to its PureSystems line, Big Blue brags that it now has more than 1,000 unique customers worldwide using the new boxes.

IBM did not supply any numbers regarding the volume of server nodes or racks these first kilo-customers that it found for the PureSystem family of modular systems, which consist of its Flex System chassis and Flex Power and x86 server nodes. These are stacked up in racks with switches and integrated storage to make the raw PureFlex infrastructure clouds, the PureApplications application servers, and the PureData analytics appliances.

The 1,000-customer milestone for PureSystems machines in that seven month period is on par with other big IBM system launches.

Take the ground-breaking dual-core Power4 "Regatta-H" pSeries 690 machines launched in October 2001. Those machines shipped in December 2001, and by May 2002 – a little more than five months later – IBM had shipped 1,000 of these machines. (Most of these went to one customer each, but there were some customers who got more than one box eventually.)

Here's another example: In November 2007, after serious pent-up demand for the dual-core Power6 processors, IBM was able to sell 1,000 of the System p570 machines in about four months. (Again, some customers got more than one.)

The Flex System sales rate is roughly akin to the sales rate on the p690 and p570 above, but it is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

But that's just the nature of systems today. The rack is becoming the system, extensible across multiple racks in a single management domain that is, for all intents and purposes, a system.

Our guess is that if there are 1,000 customers who bought boxes between the end of May and the middle of November – which is a little more than five months – there are probably many several thousands of racks involved in those deals. Some service providers are buying a few racks, some customers only a portion of a rack to start. Those few-thousand racks should have many thousands of servers – and perhaps tens of thousands – of server nodes.

The Flex System was designed to compete against the "California" Unified Computing System from Cisco Systems, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to it. So maybe that's a better thing to compare with the PureFlex platforms in their various incarnations.

Cisco announced the UCS machines in March 2009, and the machines started shipping in July of that year. It took until May 2010 for the UCS machines to have 900 customers, which is a slower ramp than the PureSystems as a group.

A year later, Cisco broke through 5,400 unique customers, and in January of this year it hit 10,000 customers. Cisco has not talked about unique customers for the remainder of this year, but it should be well above 15,000 now and heading toward 20,000 if trends persist.

It will be interesting to see if IBM can beat this UCS curve – and if it provides the numbers to prove it when and if it does. ®

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