Like a big blue knight, IBM has come to AMD's rescue once again. The company today revealed plans to ship five new Opteron-based servers. This odd shift in strategy comes just as Intel has released Xeon server chips that best Opteron on many fronts.
In April of 2003, IBM was the lone Tier 1 server vendor brave enough to back AMD's then fledgling Opteron chip. IBM's Opteron support provided AMD with invaluable street cred during a challenging period for the chipmaker.
After a couple of months, however, IBM's support looked more and more like a publicity stunt. IBM had released a single system aimed at the high performance computing market. Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems and HP had started work on broad Opteron-based server lines. And, in fact, it has been the likes of HP, Sun and Rackable Systems that have benefitted most from Opteron's market share surge over the past three years.
IBM proved reluctant to embrace Opteron in a major way due to its investment in the X3 chipset for its Xeon-based systems. Executives often said that IBM's X3 made up for Xeon's technical flaws and put the chip on even ground with Opteron. Behind the scenes, rumors swirled that Intel had convinced IBM to drop its development of Opteron-based blades and a four-socket box in exchange for some large co-marketing arrangements.
Well, the X3 infatuation has ended with IBM's release of the x3455, x3655, x3755, LS21 and LS41 servers. All of the new systems are centered around AMD's upcoming Rev F versions of Opteron.
In a bizarre bit of marketing choreography, IBM refused to utter the names of the new systems during its press conference today in New York held to launch the boxes. Only the marketing mavens at IBM could come up with a justification for not actually naming the products they were announcing at a press conference.
Anyway, the names of the servers did spill to the press via a statement from IBM. Phew.
The x3455 builds on IBM's high performance computing roots with Opteron. It's more or less just a Rev F refresh of IBM's existing two-socket Opteron box. The x3655 is a two-socket system with more add-ons available and is aimed at the general purpose crowd. On the high-end is the four-socket x3755 system that IBM again angles toward the HPC market.
The HPC pitch for the x3755 seems to be IBM's way of edging around its X3 chipset investment. Customers can, of course, buy the x3755 to do whatever they want, and plenty of HP, Sun and Dell business customers will be purchasing four-socket Opteron systems.
The LS21 is a refreshed version of IBM's LS20 blade, while the LS41 is a new twist on Opteron blades for IBM. The server starts out as a two-socket system aimed at business customers but can reach up to four-sockets with an add-on module.
All of the servers should start shipping in the third quarter, as Rev F chips arrive. IBM declined to release pricing or detailed specifications of the servers at this time.
Only the wizards inside of IBM can answer why the company went whole hog with Opteron at this juncture.
You can understand the decision on four-socket systems where Opteron still beats the heck out of Xeon. Even Dell gave Opteron the big squeeze on the four-socket front.
But Intel just released the Woodcrest version of Xeon to customers, shipping a product that trounces Opteron on many benchmarks. So why has IBM now decided to have Opteron-based systems compete against its mainstream Xeon-based gear? Xeon is finally where it needs to be.
"The short answer is that AMD is clearly here to stay and, if you're going to be a full-service shop you need to sell both Coke and Pepsi," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.
But why now? Why didn't IBM go ahead and buy into Opteron sooner given its obvious market share gains?
"That's a tougher one," Haff said. "My take is that they weren't sure how things were going to pan out and didn't want the cost and complexity of adding a full-boat Opteron product line if they could avoid it. But HP and more recently Sun's successes with Opteron changed their mind."
IBM's server GM Susan Whitney kept saying that new Opteron servers fit under IBM's Enterprise X umbrella, during the press conference. As evidence of IBM's Opteron technology investment, she pointed to advances such as IBM's pass through memory module that provides near linear performance on four-ways and delivers 30 per cent performance per watt improvements. Whitney also flagged some patent pending technology called accelerated memory that provides access to all DIMMs at 667MHz. "With systems from other vendors, once you go beyond four DIMMs, you revert back to 533MHz access," Whitney said. IBM expects customers to see 25 per cent better memory access throughput on larger servers.
These investments, however, don't match up to the hundreds of millions that IBM spent creating the X3-based Xeon servers.
AMD's CEO Hector Ruiz, present at the New York event, was more than happy to overlook IBM's past Opteron reluctance. IBM has freshened up AMD's Opteron story at a pivotal moment for the company. Right when Woodcrest seemed to have crushed Opteron's momentum, IBM stepped in with a delivered a big customer win to AMD.
Of all the Tier 1s to save Opteron now, IBM may have seemed the most unlikely. ®