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Big Blue sees a server in the workstation

IBM says its RS/6000 line of workstations is alive and well--but with fierce competition in the workstation realm, Big Blue may strike it richer repackaging its workstation as a server.

IBM says its RS/6000 line of workstations is alive and well--but with fierce competition in the workstation realm, Big Blue may strike it richer repackaging its workstation as a server.

The innards of IBM's model 150 RS/6000 workstation are the basis for the company's "Pizzazz" server that will debut this fall, said John Holz, vice president of IBM's workstation division. Already, IBM has 10 customers who each want to buy 1,000 of the boxes, Holz said. One of those customers plans to buy 1,000 now and 8,000 within the next two years, he said.

IBM has said the thin and rack-mountable Pizzazz servers will be released with specific software packages designed to make them good for specific tasks such as being a protective firewall or caching network data. Using the same chip and other components of the workstation allowed IBM to develop the Pizzazz more quickly, the company says.

Servers are the brains of computer networks, storing files and data where many people can find it and forming the fabric of the Internet. Workstations, on the other hand, are typically used for heavy-duty computing tasks such as designing chips, animating movies, or simulating car crashes.

Lagging performance
IBM's RS/6000 workstations are in a "sweet spot" because customers like to buy them packaged with strong services and support from IBM. But in terms of processing power per dollar, IBM lags Sun and Hewlett-Packard, he said.

The latest RS/6000s were good when they were introduced in October 1998, but now, "they need to work on price/performance to achieve leadership," said Sarang Ghatpande, an analyst with D.H. Brown Associates.

HP recently beefed up its Unix workstations, and SGI this week announced an upgraded processor for its O2 Unix workstations.

IBM will address that very weakness later this year with a new chip, a 400-MHz PowerPC chip based on IBM's copper interconnect technology, Holz said. That's twice as fast as the current 200-MHz chip.

When IBM jumps to the copper-based chip later this year, it also will allow the machines to use four chips instead of the current limit of two, Holz said.

Wintel on the rise
Once the province of computers with RISC chips and the Unix operating system, machines with Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows operating system have been making inroads, both with computers and software.

International Data Corporation says Wintel workstations surpassed Unix/RISC machines in unit shipments and will surpass them in revenue later this year or early next year. But analysts say Unix/RISC workstations remain popular at the high end, where Wintel still can't keep up with the calculation speed and demands for a machine that won't crash.

"Wintel has pretty much won the low end," Ghatpande said, and graphics performance now is comparable. "At the high end, Unix is still dominant."

Holz was more cheery about the future of Unix workstations. "Two or three years ago, it was popular in the industry analyst community to declare Unix dead, particularly in the workstation space. You can't count the number of analysts who were telling us that story, and they couldn't have been more wrong," he said.

In any case, IBM is to a certain extent shielded from this struggle between two systems because both its Unix and Wintel workstation lines are under the same management. "We don't want to have one IBM product rep saying Unix is dead, then a different [IBM salesperson] the next day telling them that NT sucks," he said.

Microsoft, unsurprisingly, is helping in any way it can to encourage users to switch to Windows workstations or at least add Windows NT machines into a Unix environment. For example, Microsoft promotes Interix, a company that sells a version of Unix that runs on top of a very basic layer of Windows NT.

But even Microsoft acknowledges Unix and Windows workstations will live side-by-side in coming years. Microsoft has won over some major software companies, such as Dassault Systemes, most software companies "will continue to support both platforms," and manufacturers of Unix/RISC workstations "will continue to innovate," said Charles Stevens, vice president of Microsoft's application developers group, at a conference last week.

IBM will continue to position the RS/6000 machines at the high end of the workstation line, he said.

Holz said that IBM will continue to sell and improve RS/6000 workstations for the foreseeable future. PowerPC chips running at 1 GHz are scheduled to be shipping in samples in 2000 and in systems in early 2001, he said.

Though the line currently uses only 200-MHz chips--a considerably slower clock speed than competing chips--he said the machines actually run fast because the chips are capable of many calculations in a single tick of clock cycle. In addition, IBM has good compilers that have enabled software companies to improve performance 10 percent a year even without changes to the hardware, he said.

And then there were two
In the high-end number-crunching realm of workstations, Holz predicted there soon will be only two chips left in the market: IBM's PowerPC family and Compaq's Alpha.

The upcoming 64-bit chips from Intel, Holz said, won't measure up in terms of their ability to perform "floating point" calculations--the mathematical calculations core to physics simulations and most other workstation tasks.

But Linley Gwennap, chief analyst at Cahner's MicroDesign Resources, disagreed.

"The IA-64 architecture itself certainly has the same features as a RISC processor in handling floating point calculations," Gwennap said. "In fact, the IA-64 architecture has more registers to store floating-point data, so for a lot of calculations it will run faster."

With the comparatively weak floating-point performance of Intel's 32-bit chips, floating-point ability was one of the key aspects Intel set out to fix, Gwennap said.

Don't wait for a cheap Unix machine
At the lower end of the line, IBM also is planning a successor to its model 150 RS/6000 workstation that will debut this fall, Holz said. That machine will use almost the same components as its Intel-based workstations, he said. "There will be only three differences: the chip, the operating system, and the label on the box," he said. "Everything else is the same."

IBM, however, has no plans to pursue a cheap Unix/RISC machine, following in the footsteps of Sun with its successful Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 line. "We've talked about it a lot, but at the moment, we have no plans to pursue very low-priced" Unix workstations, Holz said.

The Ultra 5 machines, which Sun sells for less than $3,000, "are doing extremely well," Ghatpande said. Those machines have taken Sun into uncharted terrain, the domain of low profit margins that are more likely to be found in selling Wintel computers. "I don't think the other Unix players are interested in that," Ghatpande said.