It can't happen fast enough to please computer hardware outfits, but the rusty gears of the server market are creakily starting to turn again.

Server sales rose 2% year over year in the third quarter, according to market research group IDC. While that may not sound like much, it marks the second quarter in a row that the market has showed growth.

In another hopeful sign, the rate of growth was higher than the 0.2% rise seen in the second quarter, when the industry finally managed to reverse nine straight quarters of declines.

That's likely not enough to please investors,

who've turned up their noses at the industry due to ongoing price battles among the likes of

IBM

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,

Hewlett-Packard

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and

Dell

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.

Still, a sustained upturn is noteworthy given that the slump of more than two years only recently ended.

"While it's too soon to call that a rebound, I do think we're heading in the right direction," said IDC research vice president Jean Bozman. "IT budget constraints continue to be in place. While companies are adding capacity, they're tending to buy smaller servers to the capacity they already have," she said.

Indeed, third-quarter demand was strongest among the bottom rung of servers, those priced at less than $25,000. So-called volume servers saw 9.5% revenue growth.

Meanwhile, top-end servers that cost more than $500,000 actually saw revenue decline 14%.

Among the biggest players in the market, IBM retained its top spot in the market with a 31.1% share, gaining 1.4 points. Second-ranked H-P gained 0.4 points of share to claim 27.7% of the market. No. 4-ranked Dell posted its sixth-straight quarter of market-share growth, reaching 9.5%.

Dell is now close behind

Sun

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, which holds 10.8% of the server market. Of the top four server vendors, Sun was the only company to see its server revenue shrink year over year, with a decline of 9.3%.

In other news, IDC reported that Linux server platforms saw 49.8% growth in revenue for a quarterly sales rate of $743 million. Unit shipments grew 51.4%.

Third-quarter sales of Windows-based servers grew 10.3%, for sales of $3.4 billion, with units up 21.4%.

Unix revenue of $4.1 billion showed a decline of 3.8%, with Unix shipments up 4.3%.