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IBM tries to offload its low-end server business, again

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January 20, 2014

One more time, IBM is attempting to offload its low-end server business, according to The Wall Street Journal. Big Blue has been trying to divest itself of that division for about fifteen months now.

The Journal's report suggests that Dell hasn't turned up its nose in disgust at the idea of buying IBM's server unit and that Lenovo could also be sniffing around. But there hasn't been any offers yet.

IBM's motivation for selling off its low end, low margin servers isn't clear, nor is just what is up for sale. Let's guess that the System X boxes are in peril, as these unremarkable x86 devices come in tower, rack and blade form factors and possess no immediately apparent competitive differentiation.

It's hard to imagine that the Power range is up for sale, as Dell and Lenovo are not the kind of company that would want the baggage that comes with owning the stack of silicon and various operating systems associated with such complex hardware.

It's also difficult to see IBM walking away from enterprise customers who appreciate the mutually optimized servers that the Power range can deliver.

As for why IBM is walking away, the company has a long history of leaving markets that offer low and/or declining profit margins, to instead pursue better opportunities that let it sell IT consultation services and its deeper expertise.

But if IBM is offloading the X series, any claim to offering a comprehensive small business offering could go with the servers. Then again, IBM will still have to reasess its own strategy.

Whatever its imminent intentions, the global server market is becoming a less friendly place by the day-- you can ask anybody about that. Sales aren't stellar, thanks in part to cloud adoption.

The cloud is also starting to compete in other ways as well, with Facebook's server supplier of choice Quanta signalling plans to sell its servers in smaller volumes through local outposts.

In other IT news

Although IBM acquired cloud infrastructure provider SoftLayer in July 2013, that hasn't prevented it from quickly inking deals with third-party software providers to make its newly acquired cloud solutions more competitive with Amazon, Microsoft, Sun Hosting and other big rivals.

The latest step forward comes in the form of a Redis-as-a-Service tech courtesy of Redis experts Garantia Data. More specifically, Redis is an open-source, non-relational key-value store that holds all of its data in-memory.

The technology firm is frequently compared to Memcached, and some argue that it's superior due to a broader support of datatypes, and its utilization of optimistic locking. The development of Redis is stewarded by VMware-spinoff Pivotal.

To be sure, Redis Cloud is a hosted version of Redis that uses proprietary Garantia Data technology to handle administration operations such as setting up scaling and configuring failure recovery.

Garantia also claims "We have built the service over an infinitely-scalable architecture which supports all Redis commands at any dataset size". But nothing in technology is infinite, aside from the number of fantasies described by ?company_marketing_department.

The Redis Cloud service was announced by Garantia Data in a blog post on Wednesday, and it means that cloud developers can access a Redis cluster hosted in SoftLayer's Dallas facility.

SoftLayer provides both bare metal and virtual servers in one IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) implementation. This means that your enterprise application has the best of both worlds-- on the one hand, it gets you performant dedicated hardware, and on the other, it can use on-demand provisioning to spillover bursts for example.

That’s in fact exactly how we’re operating our service there, and this combination makes the platform quite a looker, wrote Garantia Data.

Overall, developers may be interested to find that the hosted Redis Cloud is $79 per month for a gigabyte of data on SoftLayer-– this matches Amazon Web Services's U.S. regions, and undercuts Microsoft's Windows Azure by $108 per month.

In other IT news

Micron has reportedly withdrawn Phase Change Memory (PCM) products from its portfolio. It suggests that Micron has removed 128-Mbit 90nm serial and parallel NOR pin-out PCM devices from the products listed on the Micron website.

Sure enough, we couldn’t find them there anymore. Micron once supplied 45nm 1-Gbit PCM chips to Nokia for use in its mobile phones, and was the first to place PCM into mass production.

That was Micron’s first generation PCM solutions. Micron then announced a second generation 512 Mbit implementation in December 2012.

PCM, a type of non-volatile memory, relies on a characteristic of chalcogenide materials-- their ability to change from a crystalline to an amorphous structure through the application of electrical current.

The two resulting states have different resistance levels and these can be used to signal a binary digital value.

To be sure, PCM isn’t addressed in blocks and is faster than NAND. It's positioned as a potential post-NAND successor when flash process technology cannot be shrunk further, roughly beyond 15-10nm. But it seems that point has not yet been reached, at least not yet anyway.

A Micron blog about PCM from this time last year says that, after ten years of PCM R&D, “We can now produce PCM in high volumes, with industry-standard yield, high performance, and high reliability.”

However, it seems that just twelve months after the blog was written, 3D NAND has saved it from a 180 degree turn towards PCM. Although Micron now says it is working on a "follow-on process", no PCM products appear to be currently available for purchase.

In an email to Electronics 360, a Micron spokesperson said-- "Micron's previous two generations of PCM process technologies are not available for new designs or technology evaluation, as the company is focused on developing a follow-on process to achieve lower cost per bit, lower power and higher performance."

“Micron continues innovating with PCM. The technology is one of several emerging memory technologies that Micron is investing in,” the company added.

But Micron's latest 3D NAND project is seemingly ready for rollout. The technology aims to extend the life of 2D or planar NAND technology by placing multiple layers of it on a single chip, creating a 3D structure.

It hopes to start production sampling of 3D NAND chips in the second quarter of this year, with general availability happening some time in 2015.

This would increase the capacity of NAND chips, a significant reason why NAND process geometry shrinks have been pursued.

Of course, using the 3D NAND process means the company doesn't have to undergo the expense of a wholesale move to PCM production technology and testing equipment.

This may be the underlying reason for the temporary withdrawal from PCM technology by Micron. At any rate, we will keep you posted.

In other IT news

Some IT industry analysts are predicting that for 2014, Microsoft probably won't be using ARM-compatible CPUs in its data centers, unless there is a major change in the software ecosystem around the non-x86 processors.

Although the software behemoth is closely watching developments in the ARM world, it's highly unlikely for now that Microsoft will be one of the early large-scale adopters of ARM-powered servers, the company's general manager of Windows Azure Mike Neil indicated this morning.

"To be sure, it's a new technology, but is it going to be disruptive? A big challenge ARM has right now is what workloads are you going to run on it," Neil said.

His comments follow news that both Google and Facebook are currently investigating the chips for major production use, and the combustion of ARM server specialist Calxeda which bet too much too early on 32-bit ARM being ready for the data center.

As Microsoft shifts from being just a collection of independent business divisions and technologies into a more centralized "devices and services" company, the company is still faced with an issue that other large-scale web operators are free of-- customers expect Microsoft to stress-test the software it sells within its own infrastructure before selling it to the public. And that may not happen, at least not now anyway.

Source: IBM Corp.

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