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IBM breaks silence on server speed

Big Blue posts long-awaited benchmark scores for its x440 server with Xeon chips, the spearhead of the company's campaign to conquer the market for Intel-based servers.

IBM posted long-awaited performance scores Wednesday for its x440 server with 16 Intel Xeon processors, a system Big Blue is using to try to impose itself on a key part of the server market.

The system was able to perform database transactions per minute, according to the scores. That's ahead of a rival 8-Xeon Hewlett-Packard DL760 G2 that clocked in at 115,000, but still behind the 32-Xeon Unisys Orion 230 that racked up 234,000 transactions.

The $1.7 million IBM system's score was about one-third of that posted by the highest-ranked system overall, a huge 128-processor Unix server from Fujitsu that comes with a $12 million price tag.

The benchmark, or speed measurement, test was designed by the Transaction Processing Performance Council. Server makers can spend millions of dollars preparing for the widely watched TPC-C test. Although the benchmark results can be somewhat inflated through careful tuning and the use of unusual storage systems on the part of manufacturers, a good score can't be achieved without a good system.

IBM's x440 is the spearhead of a campaign by the company to conquer the market for Intel-based servers. For years, the capabilities of Intel servers weren't far removed from those of ordinary PCs, but IBM, HP, Dell Computer, Microsoft, Intel and component maker ServerWorks have been coaxing the systems' features closer to those of more powerful Unix machines.

Market research firm Gartner expects that Intel-based systems, with an projected $20 billion in sales, will make up the largest part of the server market in 2003. Compaq Computer's ProLiant line, now sold by HP, has long led the market. Dell is gaining increasing share through strong price competition, while IBM is angling to get ahead by applying its considerable server engineering skills to otherwise comparatively ordinary machines.

The IBM server that racked up the TPC-C result used Microsoft's coming Windows Server 2003 operating system, scheduled to arrive April 24.

That operating system is the first from Microsoft to include non-uniform memory access, or NUMA, designs. These designs, which are widespread in higher-end servers with dozens of processors, vary the time needed to retrieve data from memory depending on how close that memory is to the processor that needs it.

IBM has its sights set in particular on Dell, hoping to compete better on price through a deal under which manufacturer Sanmina-SCI now builds many IBM Intel servers.

Big Blue is touting two recent gains against Dell. Last week, IBM announced that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco swapped older Dell systems for an IBM iSeries machine that includes eight IBM Intel servers handling tasks such as online ticketing and museum membership.

And Friday, IBM plans to announce that it displaced Dell at Online Taxes, which is using seven lower-end Intel servers for 150,000 customers filing taxes online. IBM's Global Services division is hosting the servers, Big Blue said.