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IBM rebuilds Unix servers with Power5+ chip

Big Blue's processor move increases performance, as well as competitive pressures on Sun, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.

IBM will bring the new Power5+ processor to its Unix server line this month, increasing performance and competitive pressures on Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Intel, the company plans to announce Tuesday.

As , the new chip will run at a speed of 1.9GHz and will be showing up only in the lower end of IBM System p5+ models, a new name for what had been the pSeries and eServer p5. Those machines run either Linux or, more often, IBM's AIX version of Unix, but IBM will phase out the previously Linux-only aspect of its OpenPower models, said Jeff Howard, program director for P5 product marketing.

In addition, IBM will debut a new model using the earlier Power5 generation of the chip, the p5-505, which, for the first time, gives Big Blue a "pizza box" 1.75-inch-thick system, Howard said.

The Power5+, like the Power4, 4+ and 5 before it, has two processing engines, called cores. Using the dual-core approach helped IBM fight its way back into a Unix server market that had been dominated by Sun and HP, and now dual-core chips are showing in the mainstream server market as well, using x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

"A fast chip got faster," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said of IBM's Power5+. "This certainly helps to cement their strong current position."

The new Power5+ models will be available worldwide Oct. 14. Among them: the p5-520, with two processor cores; the p5-550, with two or four processor cores; the p5-550Q, which has four or eight cores, and uses a new technology that packs two physical processors into a single multichip module; and the p5-575+ with 16 Power5+ cores and a general focus on high-performance technical computing. Big Blue also is selling the IntelliStation Power 285 with one or two cores.

For "Express" configurations for smaller customers, prices range from $5,750 for a two-core p5-505 to $11,896 for a two-core p5-520 to $37,428 for an eight-core p5-550.

Power5+ is the second of three major high-end server processor families to undergo a major manufacturing transition from a process with 130-nanometer features to one with 90-nanometer features. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) The new process permits more circuitry to be packed into the same amount of silicon or an existing chip design to fit on a smaller chip that costs less per unit to make and consumes less power when running.

A smidgen earlier in the transition is Sun, which announced in September that it is selling servers with the 90-nanometer UltraSparc IV+ in addition to the older 130-nanometer UltraSparc IV.

Next in line is Intel, whose 90-nanometer "Montecito" version of Itanium will replace the current 130-nanometer Madison generation.

HP builds its newer Unix servers using Itanium chips, whose architecture it initiated and co-developed. But where Power5+ and UltraSparc IV+ are "shrinks" of existing dual-core designs, Montecito is a more radical departure, meaning that Intel will, for the first time, have a dual-core Itanium.

The Power5+ processor comes with a higher-speed DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory interface, Howard said. Overall, server speed tests increase 15 percent to 20 percent, depending on the test, and the power consumption is lower, he added.

IBM's midrange and high-end p5 models have yet to get the Power5+ treatment. Those include the p5-570, with eight dual-core chips, the p5-590, with 16 dual-core chips, and the top-end p5-595, with 32 dual-core chips.

"Customers can expect midrange and high-end systems next year," Howard said. He wouldn't detail processor frequencies, but current Power5 chips run faster on high-end models, and Howard added, "You can expect 1.9GHz is not the highest frequency you'll see on Power5+."

Also coming later will be i5 systems, identical hardware that runs IBM's i5/OS operating systems and is marketed toward midsize customers who want machines with a full collection of tightly integrated software.

The end of new Linux-only OpenPower systems is in response to customer demand for dual operating-system support. "They have said, 'We just want the maximum flexibility,'" Howard said.