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IBM preps new top-end Unix servers

Big Blue plans to announce the servers Friday, sources say, stirring up major new challenges for Sun and HP.

IBM plans to announce two new top-end Unix servers Friday, sources familiar with its plans said, opening major new challenges to Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

The new servers are the biggest iron in IBM's "Squadron" family of servers using the Power5 processor, a chip that has two processing engines, or cores, on each slice of silicon. The p5-590 has 16 Power5 chips and 32 cores, while the p5-595 has 32 Power5 chips and 64 cores.

In addition, IBM is expected to announce a third system, the i5-595, which uses the same hardware as the p5-595 but runs Big Blue's i5/OS operating system for midsize customers who like pre-assembled software bundles. The i5 and p5 models also can run Linux.

IBM declined to comment for this story.

Aggressive pricing is also expected. The p5-590, for example, will cost at least 25 percent less than the current top-end pSeries 690, one source familiar with the product said.

IBM's first Squadron products were low-end and midrange systems. The current and new models feature "virtualization" technology that lets a single server, or even a single processor, run multiple operating systems.

IBM admits to having been caught flat-footed by the boom in Unix server sales that chiefly benefited Sun in the late 1990s. But since then, it has been working overtime to make up for it. Even its rivals agree IBM's efforts have paid off.

For example, the performance of the new Power5 systems wowed Sun. "We've had folks in labs trying to tear apart their benchmarks, thinking they're doing benchmarketing, not benchmarking. But the reality is the benchmarks are looking damned good," said Larry Singer, Sun's chief competitive officer.

And Vish Mulchand, director of HP server marketing, acknowledged, "They definitely have some benefits in Power5." But neither rival is throwing in the towel.

Competitive counterattacks
HP is betting that its servers with Intel's Itanium processors--in particular, the dual-core "Montecito" chip scheduled to arrive in 2005--will beat out IBM's. "By the time we get our Montecito (servers) out there, I think we'll leapfrog them again," Mulchand said.

Sun, too, expects a boost from future processors such as the UltraSparc IV+, due in 2005 and promising to double performance over current systems. "We'll respond with price reductions and continuing innovation," Singer said.

Mulchand also believes that HP will have some breathing room, because the full performance gains promised by Power5 require an updated version of the AIX operating system, version 5.3, while most software today works with version 5.2.

Sun jump-started the high-end Unix server business in the mid-1990s with its 64-processor E10000, a design the company acquired from Cray. HP followed suit with its 64-processor Superdome models, which initially used the company's own PA-RISC chips but which now are also available with Intel's Itanium.

IBM entered the game in 2001 with its pSeries 690, which had 16 dual-core Power4 processors. Although the p690 had fewer chips, the system posted record speed test results on some important benchmarks.

Slicing and dicing
The systems come with more than a lot of chips and memory, though; they can be sliced into independent pieces through technology generally called partitioning. That provides helpful versatility; a single system can ease administration burdens by replacing several smaller machines with one larger one. In the case of IBM and HP, it can run operating systems besides Unix, and partition sizes can be expanded or shrunk to accommodate varying work loads.

Sun and HP beat IBM to the market with partitioning in Unix servers, but IBM's mainframe server line indicates that Big Blue already has years of experience.

IBM is expected to tout a new speed test that spotlights partitioning and its underlying technology, called virtualization. The test, called the Virtualization Grand Slam benchmark, measures how well multiple tasks run in multiple partitions.

For example, IBM used it to see how much better a system performed when busy partitions could expand to use the computing resources of those that were comparatively idle.

The benchmark can reflect how well partitioning and virtualization technology shares resources such as memory and communications channels. IBM hopes its rivals will offer benchmark results of their own so that customers can compare different servers.