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Big Blue to speed top-end Unix server

IBM is set to announce an overhaul of its top-end p690 Unix server, a system the company claims will be 65 percent faster than current models.

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Stephen Shankland
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IBM is set to announce on Tuesday an overhaul of its top-end p690 Unix server, a system the company claims will be 65 percent faster than current models and that later will let customers rent additional processing power on an as-needed basis.

The system overhaul--including an upgrade from a 1.3GHz to a 1.7GHz Power4 processor--puts more pressure on the first-place Unix server seller Sun Microsystems and No. 2 Hewlett-Packard. It also could help IBM do better in the high-end Unix server market, where Big Blue has a lot more catching up to do.

The 32-processor p690 will be available at the end of May with either 1.5GHz or 1.7GHz processors, as will the eight-processor p655 used for supercomputing applications, said Jim McGaughan, director of IBM's server strategy. IBM also will announce that its 16-processor p670 can use the 1.5GHz chips.

And as expected, IBM is trying to lure customers with "on-off capacity on demand," a feature arriving by the end of September that will let customers rent on an as-needed basis use of processors that IBM installed but that customers didn't buy outright.

Unix servers are steadily encroaching on the capabilities of mainframes for running business-computing tasks like managing constantly updated information such as airline reservations or warehouse inventory. Top-end machines in particular, with dozens of processors, and price tags north of $1 million, have been gaining mainframe features such as the ability run multiple different operating systems in different walled-off partitions.

Performance alone isn't enough to woo customers and software partners into shifting to a new server, but it is necessary. The fact that IBM's p690 processor speed increased 33 percent while its overall server speed increased 65 percent is "impressive," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Sun Microsystems, with a boost from a mammoth 64-processor machine it acquired from Cray Research, led the charge to better Unix servers and profited accordingly. That success, much of it tied to manic spending during the Internet boom years, led IBM to launch a years-long attempt to invigorate its pSeries Unix server line and gain at Sun's expense.

A successful effort
IBM's overall server effort, which also includes its xSeries Intel-based products, zSeries mainframes and midrange iSeries models, has been working. In 2000, Big Blue had 23 percent of the $61.5 billion total server market, according to market research firm IDC. By 2002, after two years of overall spending decreases, IBM had 29 percent of a $44.3 billion market. While IBM's server revenue dropped $1.2 billion over that period, Sun's dropped $4.2 billion and HP's $6.6 billion (including revenue from Compaq Computer, which HP acquired in 2002).

However, in high-end Unix servers costing $1 million or more, IBM has a ways to go. Sales of these systems dropped 63 percent from $890 million in 2001 to $333 million in 2002, IDC said.

"You've got Sun really performing rather badly, though it hasn't been losing huge amounts of share," said Sageza Group analyst Charles King. At the same time, HP customers who have Compaq's NonStop or AlphaServer lines are facing a mandatory switch to Itanium processors in coming years. The overall situation "offers IBM an opportunity."

IBM has a limited time to act, though. The p690's successor, a Power5-based machine code-named Squadron

, is due in 2004, and IBM's boasts of quadrupled server performance could lead customers to hold out for the new system.

The improvement in the p690 stemmed from an overhaul that sped up most parts of the system, McGaughan said.

The connection to main memory jumped from 433MHz to 567MHz. Input-output (I/O) devices such as memory cards that plug into the system use the newer PCI-X technology instead of the earlier PCI, and the Remote I/O technology that links processors to those PCI-X slots has nearly three times the bandwidth. Finally, total memory capacity doubled from 256GB to 512GB, McGaughan said.

The price tag
IBM dropped prices for its 1.1GHz and 1.3GHz models in April, McGaughan said, and is bringing in the new 1.5GHz and 1.7GHz models at the earlier price.

A p690 with 8 1.5GHz processors and 8GB of memory has a list price of $493,000. With 16 1.7GHz processors and 32GB of memory, the price tops $1 million. With 32 1.7GHz processors and 64GB of memory, it's $1.9 million, McGaughan said, and topped up with 512GB of memory the price is $3 million.

Prices on the street will be less than that in reality because of discounting, McGaughan said. "Virtually all of these systems do have some form of discount associated with them," he said. "The discounts are higher for business partners and for customers on larger systems."

The on-off capacity-on-demand will let customers rent extra processing power to deal with spikes in demand, McGaughan said. A 30-day free trial lets them test the feature out at no cost, he said, but after that they pay for time 60 days at a time, using it in a way that's similar to how a person might use a phone calling card. One 60-day card can be used to switch four processors on for 15 days, for example.

IBM also hopes customers will pay to permanently switch on the processors.

Big Blue is offering the ability to upgrade memory in a similar fashion, letting customers pay on an as-needed basis for memory that's already been installed.

IBM also has begun a program under which customers can upgrade their systems. Older p670s and p690s can accept faster processors, memory and input-output systems, and customers who bought a p670 now can upgrade that system into a p690, McGaughan said.

"It's a fairly involved model upgrade, but it maintains the same serial number," McGaughan said. "It's something customers have been asking for."

However, IBM's systems can't accommodate different-speed processors, a fact Sun points to with glee. Because the Sun Fire 15K can use mixed-speed chips, parts of the system can be upgraded while the rest of the system remains in use.

IBM expects to beat out Hewlett-Packard's current top rank on the widely watched TPC-C score on a server speed test run by the Transaction Processing Performance Council. If IBM's TPC-C scores increase by the same factor as on its own rPerf benchmark, the improved p690 should reach a TPC-C score of about 700,000 transactions per minute, a notch ahead of HP's 658,000.