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IBM is getting a boost for its group in the form of more financing, additional members and a new product.

The Armonk, N.Y., technology giant kicked off in February as a vehicle for encouraging other vendors to build products on top of IBM’s BladeCenter platform.

The organization was one of the latest moves by IBM to expand the reach of its BladeCenter systems and to keep its lead in the competitive blade server market.

IBM June 9 announced that Walden International, a venture capital firm in San Francisco, is going to invest up to $100 million in BladeCenter ecosystem partners, with about half of that going into the Asian market. In addition, IBM announced that 17 new members—Intel OEMs and channel partners—are joining, bringing its membership past 75.

On June 12, the company will unveil a new 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch blade from Blade Network Technologies, a company spun off from Nortel Networks Feb. 13.

“The announcements mean the mission and benefits of are being very well received by partners,” said Lisa Galish, program director of IBM’s blade ecosystem. “It’s a positive show of support from partners.”

Walden International already has invested in almost a dozen companies that provide components and solutions for the blade market, and it is a major investor in the Asian market, having committed $1.6 billion to the region.

Galish said a large percentage of is made up of U.S.-based companies, but that the group is committed to expanding its reach globally.

“The membership will become more geographically diverse,” she said.

The new members reflect that diversity. Bull is based in France, while Ex-Channel Ltd. is in Hong Kong and Intech & Co. hails from South Korea. Several other U.S. companies also are joining the group, including NCR, Symbol Technologies and Wal-Mart Stores.

The new networking switch from Blade Network Technologies is the latest example of IBM’s push to integrate technologies into the BladeCenter platform, said Ishan Sehgal, program director for BladeCenter.

“What we have done since the beginning with BladeCenter that has been different than our competitors is integrate more and more capabilities into BladeCenter,” Sehgal said.

IBM has shipped more than 1.5 million 1 Gigabit Ethernet ports with BladeCenter. In addition, the company already has 10GB InfiniBand capabilities integrated into the platform, he said. Having 10 Gigabit Ethernet will give customers a familiar I/O technology to build upon, Sehgal said.

The Nortel 10G Uplink Ethernet Switch Module for BladeCenter will be available the week of June 12 starting at $4,999.

In addition, IBM on June 12 will announce that, in the second half of the year, it will embed the SMASH (Systems Management Architecture for Server Hardware) protocol in the BladeCenter Advanced Management Module. SMASH is designed to enable cross-platform management of data center resources, and works with IBM’s Director and Tivoli management software.

The management module ships with IBM’s BladeCenter H chassis. IBM also is preparing a software development kit for the platform, which will help third parties interested in developing software for BladeCenter.

The blade server market is a fast-growing one. Analyst company IDC, of Framingham, Mass., expects it to grow to $10 billion by 2009.

In the first quarter of 2006, blade revenue grew 43.4 percent and shipments rose 29.5 percent. The $591 million in revenue represented 5 percent of the overall server market. IBM topped the market with 40.1 percent share, followed by Hewlett-Packard, at 35.6 percent. Dell was third, with 11.1 percent.

Iris Wireless, a global wireless messaging and data services company based in Greenwich, Conn., decided this year to switch from Dell to IBM for its blade server needs. The company, with up to 1.2 billion subscribers worldwide—195 million of them in the United States—wanted to strengthen its worldwide MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) network, particularly in such regions as China and India. Iris facilitates the exchange of MMS messages. CEO Peter Rinfret said he wanted to make processing times faster. “We’re literally doing a billion calculations per minute [in these transfers],” Rinfret said.

There were several factors that fueled his decision to make the move to IBM, he said, including the fact that IBM offers the LS20 blade, powered by Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron processor, which offers greater energy efficiency than current Xeon chips from Intel, which helps with such issues as data center density and power costs.

In addition, Rinfret said he was sold on IBM’s management software, as well as the flexibility and modularity of IBM’s systems.

He also said IBM representatives did a good job working with Iris to ensure that the company got exactly what it needed, something he didn’t see as much with Dell.

“If you can’t fit a square peg in a square hole [with Dell], you’re done,” he said.

Iris Wireless submitted its first order with IBM in mid-May and already is preparing more over the next few weeks. Rinfret said he expects to double the number of servers Iris is running in the next six months and double it again in the six months after that.

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