IBM has taken a step toward AMD's Opteron processor and a step back from Intel's Itanium.

At Big Blue's PartnerWorld conference in Las Vegas this week, attendees were given a sneak peek at the company's first Opteron blade server during a keynote by William Zeitler, senior VP of IBM's Systems and Technology Group.

Though IBM did not provide technical details, execs have hinted that the server will support AMD's upcoming dual-core Opteron processor, which is expected in the second half of this year. "There are clearly customers who have asked for AMD blades," said IBM's xSeries general manager, Susan Whitney, in a December interview. "AMD has their own product road map for dual-core. That might be a good time to bring a new product to market."

IBM was the first major vendor to ship an Opteron-based system, but the company's Opteron systems have been designed for a narrow range of uses, and rivals HP and Sun now offer a much broader portfolio of Opteron systems.

"IBM clearly was the first guy in the pool with Opteron," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. "But I think they've tried to stay in the shallow end. For whatever reason they've never moved the Opteron product into their mainstream xSeries line."

It's significant that IBM is readying what will be its first Opteron server targeted at the enterprise, and may even presage a broader line of Opteron products from the company, Brookwood said. "An Opteron blade from IBM says maybe they realise that their enterprise customers do want this," he said. "Who knows, maybe we'll see an Opteron-based xSeries box eventually."

The Opteron blade preview came just one week after IBM unveiled its new X3 server architecture, which, unlike its predecessor, does not support Intel's Itanium processor. Without an X3 chipset for its Itanium servers, analysts say it is unlikely that IBM will bring a new system to market before Intel releases its next Itanium chipset, expected sometime after 2006.

"IBM has elected not to spend a lot of money developing their own Itanium chipset," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata. "Frankly Itanium is not a strategic product for IBM today."