Up until 1997, IBM did not seem to take this market seriously - it had products more or less because it had to, not because it was energetically intending to fight for market share. The corporate strategy was defensive, not offensive.
In 1997, however, the corporate view changed, and IBM began a determined attempt to make headway in this market. A senior executive, Bill Colton, was given the responsibility of making IBM a force to be reckoned with in the Wintel server area, and the company soon afterwards relaunched its Intel based server line under a new brand name, Netfinity, and with a new emphasis on enterprise-level capability. The products have steadily evolved since then, along with the services that support them, and IBM is now well established in the market, if not yet in the same league as market leaders Compaq and Dell.
IBM's strategy is to develop the Intel based server, so that it is suitable for running mission-critical applications. According to Tony John, UK Netfinity brand manager, 'the applications are now becoming enterprise-level, such as mail. So there is a need for the reliability/availability features of enterprise systems.'
The blueprint for this technology development is called X-Architecture. This, says John, 'is not just a processor roadmap... X-Architecture is concerned with that, but also with everything else in the machine. That includes things like redundant fans and redundant power supplies, mirrored memory, and the ability to add memory on the fly.'
At the same time, says John, 'you need to bring people with you. The Intel market has always been cost-sensitive, both in terms of products and infrastructure, including services and training... So we want a mainstream environment, mainstream machine availability, but a lowering of cost of roll-out, and support on the way to enterprise-class technology.'
One way of adding new functionality and capability cheaply that is available to IBM, but not to its competitors, is to make use of technology developed for servers that are already enterprise-class, such as S/390, AS/400, and RS/6000. This is a key element of IBM's strategy.
This existing technology includes both relatively trivial items, such as 'the choice of rack size, which needed to be the same as for AS/400 and RS/6000', and sophisticated technology 'like stealing the memory technology from RS', says John. This is called 'chipkill', and is said by IBM to be 100 times more reliable than conventional Intel server error-correcting code (ECC) memory.
Leveraged technology also includes the design for the eight-way Netfinity 8000, which was developed in conjunction with the RS/6000 team.
And it also includes software, says John. 'With multiple Intels, it is a nightmare keeping them all running. So we are using a subset of Tivoli's IT Director called Netfinity Director.' The main difference is that the links to non-Netfinity systems are removed. The product is shipped as standard with all Netfinitys.
The current Netfinity product line consists of a range of tower models (1000, 3000, 5000, and 7000) and rack models (4000, 6000 and 8000). The tower models have from one to four processors, the rack models two or eight. The most powerful processor currently used is the 700 MHz Pentium III (with 750 MHz and 800 MHz versions announced, but not yet available from Intel). Memory goes up to 16 Gb, and internal disk to 364 Gb.
The 4000 is a slimline model that occupies only one unit of a rack - theoretically, therefore, you could store 42 of them in a standard rack. The unit height is just one and three quarter inches (45mm).
Squeezing a server into that small a space was quite difficult - existing rack models required at least four height units. It involved, for example, mounting the processor on the edge of the board instead of on top. Cooling was also a problem with everything packed so closely together; the 4000 has seven fans.
Every Netfinity server comes supplied with a copy of Domino Server. The operating system, on the other hand, is a chargeable item, as you may not wish to obtain it from IBM. Options are Windows NT and Windows 2000, all the PC versions of Unix, including Linux, and Novell NetWare.
Major differentiating features of Netfinity include auto-PCI, which allows you to add a new PCI card without taking the server down. A by-product of this capability is that Netfinity can have hot-pluggable processors: this requires operating system support, so IBM developed its own add-on for NT 4.0 in conjunction with Microsoft. The code has now been incorporated into Windows 2000. Support for this feature is not yet available in NetWare or Unix.
Another selling point is light path diagnostics, which allows an engineer to identify which component has failed. This not only simplifies repairs: it reduces subsequent failures as well, according to John. 'One of the highest sources of error is the repair process, when lots of bits are removed looking for the failed component, and they get damaged or not replaced properly. Light path diagnostics reduces those errors.'
Technological innovation is necessary in the Intel server market, but it is not everything. Customers, who are mainly channels and service providers rather than end users, want a quality product backed up by a quality service, as Geac UK Streamline product sales manager Jon Paul explains.
'We're selling Netfinitys with a software solution. Whether it's faster is not important; they change the technology every two months anyway. The important thing is the reliability. They are not built to be the fastest or the cheapest; they're built to be reliable business machines. IBM's ability to support the machine is so much greater than with other companies. The services they provide are so much better.'
Paul is particularly enthusiastic about Netfinity Director. 'With IBM that comes as a bundle that is tested and works; if on rare occasions it doesn't, the service we get is exemplary.'
Selling Netfinitys as bundled products is part of IBM's plan. In June the company announced the first of what it calls 'appliances', the Netfinity A100. The idea is to provide a server capable of hosting a web based service that can be installed and running in just a few minutes, rather than the several hours it takes with a standard server.
A feature of this product which is also available on other Netfinitys is Web Server Accelerator software. This boosts web serving performance by caching frequently used information, such as the home page and product photos.
In future IBM will launch many more bundled products. On the technology side, the future is dominated by the imminent arrival of Intel's IA-64 processor. This was scheduled to be here by now, but Intel has admitted that volume shipments will not be under way until 2001.
The transition from 32-bit to 64-bit Intel processing will be as much of a challenge as the move from 16-bit to 32-bit was when the 80386 arrived. Not only will the operating system suppliers have to produce new releases, but so will all the application software providers. It will certainly be several years before 64-bit Intel/Windows IT is mainstream.
IBM is well placed to make this transition, because it has already moved to 64-bit on the AS/400, and is in the process of doing so on the RS/6000 (System 390 is expected to start moving to 64-bit around the same time as Intel, at the end of this year or the beginning of next). l
One of IBM's selling points for Netfinity is that it will run a range of Linux variants, and one of its most prestigious recent Netfinity sales has been to a company that wants to use that operating system. The customer is weather.com, one of the world's leading web sites, which averages 300 million page views per month. weather.com's business is growing, and like most dot com companies it can see extreme peaks in demand, especially during the hurricane season. 'Our page views can soar from five million to 25 million in a matter of days' says chief technology officer Mark Ryan.
To meet the scaleability demands implied by these peaks, weather.com is implementing Netfinity 4000R servers running Linux as part of an internet infrastructure. The Netfinitys will serve images and maps to currently 77,000 locations worldwide. The services provider is also implementing WebSphere Application Server, though that will run on a non-IBM platform.