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Intel servers: A bunch of slackers?

Those Intel servers seem to be active only 15 percent of the time. What gives?

When computer companies hawk servers powered by Intel (or Advanced Micro Devices) they talk about how much work these relatively cheap boxes can do.

In reality, they are all sitting back there in the computer room listening to old Scorpions CDs and scrounging for snack food like a bunch of convenience store clerks.

Servers with so-called x86 chips are utilized only about 10 to 15 percent of the time, according to Scott Handy, vice president of the system p group at IBM, in a press meeting the day before LinuxWorld. The rest of the time they are waiting around for something to do, like getting a call for a gig for their band. The statistic comes from analyst reports, but also interviews with hundreds of IBM customers, he said.

Handy, naturally, says that enterprises can get better use of their computing resource by exploiting virtualization software and consolidating applications onto large servers, such as the p systems sporting the Power 6 processor, released in June.

The Power 6 has two cores, and two threads per core. Two chips fit in a server, and four servers can be lashed together to make a 16-core computing behemoth. A fully stacked 16-core machine can handle 768GB of memory.

IBM compared a p570 system to some slightly older Sun SunFire v890s. By swapping out 30 SunFires with two p570s, customers can save 90 percent of their floor space and 90 percent of their energy costs. That translates to $100,000 a year in energy, he said.

Sun naturally disputes this. It is also touting the performance of its new UltraSparc T2 chip in between annoucing job cuts. (Handy, in turn, dissed UltraSparc T2.) The two companies, along with Hewlett-Packard, will be jousting all week at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, which is taking place now through Thursday in San Francisco.

Intel and AMD will chime in too. After all, more than 90 percent of the servers shipped these days contain x86 chips.