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IBM upgrades low-end Unix server

Big Blue is bringing a faster processor to its lowest-end p615 Unix server and has announced new products for joining its servers to form a supercomputing cluster.

IBM is bringing a faster processor to its lowest-end p615 Unix server and announced new software and hardware Thursday for joining its servers to form a supercomputing cluster.

Big Blue's p615 previously had a 1.2GHz version of the Power4+ chip, which has two processor "cores" on a single slice of silicon. As expected, the new version comes with a 1.45GHz chip and is scheduled to begin shipping Oct. 24.

A system with 4GB of memory costs $14,495 with AIX, IBM's version of the Unix operating system, but the system also can run Linux, IBM said.

Sun Microsystems has been the top seller of Unix servers for years, and dominates the lower-end market in particular. IBM has been tackling that dominance, having overall success, with its Power4 and Power4+ processors.

The result has been a no-holds-barred battle. "Server vendors are beating each other up on price," Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich said in a report Wednesday. And Sun said Thursday that its gross margins were lowered substantially by price cuts and discounts.

"It's brutal out there," Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy said in a conference call. "The enterprise server business is going to be here for a long time, but clearly it's a dogfight."

Unix servers, more affordable than mainframes but more powerful than Intel servers, long have been the workhorses of the industry for tasks such as managing inventory or hosting e-commerce Web sites. However, Intel servers, initially running Microsoft Windows and now also Unix's cousin Linux, have been encroaching on their territory. Indeed, in the second quarter, more server revenue came from Intel servers than Unix servers powered by RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors such as those that Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard sell. RISC is a computer architecture that reduces chip complexity by using simpler instructions.

One area where IBM has been successful with its Unix servers is in high-performance technical computing, tasks such as predicting climate change, simulating galaxy collisions or modeling airplane aerodynamics. Often these problems are divided among several or sometimes even hundreds of systems, called nodes, interconnected with a switch.

Big Blue on Thursday announced the new High Performance Switch to connect these nodes. It's the newest member of IBM's SP switch line, with four times the data-carrying capacity compared with its predecessor.

In addition, the delay for transferring messages dropped from 18 nanoseconds in the previous generation to 10 nanoseconds; IBM hopes to push this down to 5 nanoseconds in the next month. (A nanosecond is a billionth of a second.)

The new switch can join as many as 16 top-end p690 or midrange p655 Unix servers, and by mid-2004 will support as many as 64, IBM said.

The company also announced a new version of its Cluster Systems Management software for setting up and managing these computing clusters. The software has utilities to control hardware, monitor performance, and send alerts or initiate some repairs if a problem is found.

CSM has worked on AIX, IBM's version of Unix, but now also works on Linux, Big Blue said. It also has new features such as the ability to run customized installation instructions. The AIX version of the software is scheduled to ship Nov. 14, with the Linux version coming Dec. 19.