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IBM brings partitioning to low-end server

Big Blue will begin an overhaul of the lower end of its Unix server line, announcing a system with the Power4 processor and the capability to behave like several independent systems.

IBM will begin an overhaul of the lower end of its Unix server line Tuesday, announcing a system with the Power4 processor and the capability to behave like several independent systems.

As reported, the p630 brings IBM's newest processor to the lower-priced sub-$100,000 Unix server market where Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are stronger. Prices range from $12,495 for a basic model to beyond $30,000 for a four-processor system with more memory.

The product will begin shipping in volume on Aug. 30, with more sophisticated software and expansion capabilities arriving later in the fall, said Jim McGaughan, director of IBM eServer product marketing.

The four-processor system from IBM is targeted at Sun's new V480 "Cherrystone" system and HP's rp5470. Unlike those systems, though, IBM's can be divided into four "partitions," each running its own copy of Unix or Linux.

Sun is aiming its V480 at Intel servers; in particular, a bevy of new models using four of Intel's Xeon server processors. IBM, which sells its xSeries Intel servers as well as pSeries Unix machines, downplays product overlap.

"As you get down in price points, there certainly is some overlap in technologies," McGaughan said, but added, "We are completely positioning this against the Unix competition."

Partitioning in IBM systems lets a separate copy of the operating system run on an individual processor, but changing the computing resources assigned to one partition requires rebooting. With the new version coming in the fall--to IBM's top-end Unix servers as well as to the p630--administrators will be able to change those partitions without shutting them off.

Partitioning is useful for customers balancing several jobs within the same computer, isolating one partition from software updates or system crashes in another.

Though the systems can run Linux, McGaughan doesn't expect the option to be used widely beyond evaluation projects and technical tasks such as biotechnology computing. Linux chiefly is used on Intel-based servers, but IBM is backing its use on all its product lines.

Linux company SuSE supports Linux for IBM's Power-based servers. In the long term, Power-processor versions of Linux are important because IBM is overhauling three of its four server lines to use the Power processors.

IBM's Power4 chip, which actually packs two processors onto a single slice of silicon, is used only in two higher-end systems. The p670, which accommodates four to 16 processors and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for most configurations, and the flagship p690 "Regatta" can cost well over $1 million and can accommodate 32 processors.

The p670 and p690 models are the size of refrigerators, but the p630 is much smaller--a rack-mountable model 7 inches thick. Sun's V480, by comparison, is 8.75 inches thick, while HP's rp5400 is 12.25 inches thick. This thickness is key for customers wishing to pack numerous servers into as little room as possible.

The p630 is the first to use Power processors packaged in a simpler housing that permits single-processor systems, IBM said. The p670 and p690 use multi-chip module packaging that squeezes four Power4 chips--eight processors--into a ceramic slab.

The p630 doesn't use this multi-chip module, and instead relies on more ordinary packaging since it doesn't require so many high-speed links among different processors.

Even though the p630's chips still come in pairs, one is deactivated to enable the one-processor model. To upgrade to a two-processor model, IBM supplies a new processor board, McGaughan said.

The p630 replaces earlier systems such as the p640 and p270, McGaughan said. The new system comes with some automatic facilities for error-correction hardware fault detection.

Sun's V480 is shipping in a four-processor configuration with 32GB of memory costing about $100,000, according to Sun's Web site. But supplies are constrained for lower-priced models with broader customer appeal. Sun's eight-processor V880 was in high demand when it debuted last year.

Although IBM's p630 will support 32GB of memory when higher-capacity memory modules become cheaper, it tops out at 16GB. Because IBM customers use an average of 2.5GB on their four-processor systems, the maximum capacity isn't much of an issue at present, McGaughan said.

IBM's system, like newer Intel servers--but not like Sun's products--has PCI-X slots to accommodate adapters to fast networks or storage systems. Sun is still evaluating the feature for its products.