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IBM attacks Unix rivals with Power5

New systems boost performance and can run many operating systems simultaneously.

IBM is expected to announce a new generation of Unix servers on Tuesday, systems it believes powerful enough to let Big Blue topple rivals Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

As previously reported, IBM will announce low-end and midrange models using the new Power5 processor: the dual-processor eServer p5 520, the four-processor p5 550 and the 16-processor p5 570. The systems, which boost performance and can run many operating systems simultaneously, will ship by Aug. 31.

The products are strong, analysts say, and arrive at a time when Sun and Hewlett-Packard, the No. 1 and No. 2 Unix server sellers, are vulnerable. "Sun and HP have begun refreshes to technologies that are competitive, but they're not there yet," Forrester analyst Brad Day said.

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice had a similar assessment. "IBM is at a very strong point in its product cycle right now. Its competitors are at a bit of an ebb because of their transitional issues," Eunice said, referring to Sun's embrace of Fujitsu's high-end Sparc64 processor and HP's switch from its PA-RISC chips to Intel's Itanium.

For the first time, the p5 systems use identical hardware as their i5 server brethren, which debuted in May. That convergence means a larger customer base supports IBM engineering resources and that three operating systems--IBM's AIX version of Unix, its i5/OS for midrange machines, and Linux from either Red Hat or Novell--now can run at the same time on the same systems.

The higher-end Unix models are due by the end of the year, including a 64-processor model, said Ravi Arimilli, chief technology officer of eServer microprocessors and systems development and an IBM fellow. And if customers express an interest, a 128-processor machine could be built when systems using the smaller, faster Power5+ arrive in 2005, he added.

Prices begin at $11,185 for a p5 520 with 1GB of memory, two 1.65GHz Power5 processors, two 36GB hard drives and a year of AIX support, said Jim McGaughan, director of IBM's server strategy and one of the founding members of the company's Unix server group.

A p5 550, with four 1.65GHz processors, 8GB of memory and two 73GB drives costs $32,487, while a p5 570 with 16 1.9GHz processors, 32GB of high-speed DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory and two 73GB drives costs $503,090. Annual AIX licenses add $1,080 per processor per year for the 520 and 550 and $1,950 per processor per year for the 570, McGaughan added.

The Unix server market is a sweet spot for server makers, nicely positioned between mainframe power and high price on the one hand and Microsoft Windows' broad software support but relative immaturity on the other. IBM missed out on the Unix boom of the 1990s, when lavish spending poured money into Sun's coffers.

With the Power4 generation and Sun's troubles, IBM has been gaining Unix share. In 2003, IBM's revenue grew 13 percent to $4.1 billion, while Sun's shrank 16 percent to $5.4 billion and HP's shrank 4 percent to $5.3 billion, according to research company Gartner.

IBM admits it was caught flat-footed by Sun's surge. "When I was appointed chief architect for Power, the game was simple. We had to get back into the game. Power4 was (a) do-or-die mission. We had to get running fast because our market share was so small," Arimilli said.

Technology now and later
IBM has a simple future planned for the Power line: Power5 this year, a faster remake called Power5+ in 2005, Power6 in 2006, Power6+ in 2007, Power7 in 2008 and Power7+ in 2009, said Arimilli, who has just been named chief architect of the Power7 models.

Also coming with Power5 is simultaneous multithreading (SMT), an ability for a single processor to handle some of the work of two. The technology gives about a 30 percent performance boost, IBM said, but requires the new AIX version 5.3.

A $4 million 16-processor p5 570 with 128GB of memory and IBM's DB2 database software achieved 809,000 transactions per minute on the widely watched Transaction Processing Performance Council's TPC-C test of database performance. That's the third-fastest result for a single system, trailing the No. 1 IBM p690 with 32 Power4 chips and the No. 2 HP Superdome with 64 Itanium 2 chips.

One of the major new features of the Power5 servers is "micro-partitioning," the ability to run as many as 10 operating systems on each processor. The feature makes it easier to replace multiple systems with a single centrally managed machine, especially because management software can automatically reallocate resources as work loads shift.

The new partitioning addresses a major weakness of the Power4 generation: the requirement that each partition have its own adapters for networking and storage systems.

"When we looked at Power4, at a certain point, it became cost-prohibitive to slice it up into logical partitions," said Robert Gamso, senior principal systems architect at appliance maker Whirlpool, a longtime IBM Unix server customer with about 100 systems.

IBM will improve flexibility of portioning will improve when the Power5+ in 2005, when one machine will be able to move a partition quickly to another. The feature is available today, but only using a relatively slow networked storage system; with the Power5+ systems it will happen "in a matter of a few seconds" using conventional Ethernet networking, Arimilli said.

A new Linux priority with Power5 meant a change to the IBM's typical approach of adapting the operating system to the processor. With Linux, the influence went the other direction after IBM found programmers unwilling to relinquish Linux's general-purpose but sometimes slower design, Arimilli said.

Linux led to about 20 additions to the Power5 design in areas such as how the chip addresses memory and locks computing resources that are in use, Arimilli said. The changes mean that Linux runs about 90 to 95 percent the speed of AIX instead of 80 percent, Arimilli said--though AIX gets a much smaller boost from the hardware changes as well.

"AIX is still superior, but as years go by, that gap will close," Arimilli said. And for now, "Linux on Power5 will have much better performance than Linux on other architectures."

Right now, Linux isn't well enough supported by software companies and others to make its worthwhile on Whirlpool's Power servers, though the company does use it on Intel-based systems, Gamso said. That could change: "Once the rest of the market catches up and all the ISVs (independent software vendors) are there, then it's viable," he said.

The competition
"Everyone has been on the defensive about a resurgent IBM for some years now," Eunice said, but competitors are fighting back. Sun is using a three-pronged chip strategy, while HP argues it will benefit from Intel's Itanium chips for higher-end servers.

Sun's first prong is a partnership with Fujitsu, which is bringing a dose of mainframe expertise to its Sparc64 VI processor. Second is two "chip multithreading" designs that can run several instruction sequences simultaneously, midrange "Niagara" and higher-end "Rock." Third is pushing its Solaris version of Unix for Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors, newer members of the "x86" processors such as Intel's Pentium and Xeon.

Sun has been trying to sell large quantities of servers to preserve its customer base, even if it meant heavy discounts, but that emphasis is changing, said Chief Competitive Officer Larry Singer. "The focus of the company is shifting very much to revenue growth and profitability," he said.

Sun also has an answer to micro-partitioning: N1 Grid Containers, a feature due to arrive by year-end in Solaris 10. These containers make a single version of the operating system appear to have multiple independent instances, and the technology works on x86 chips as well as Sparc chips from Sun and Fujitsu.

Don Jenkins, vice president of marketing for HP's Business Critical Server group, sees several Power5 problems. "The most difficult issue for Power5 is the fact it's proprietary and doesn't run Windows and is an inadequate Linux platform," he said. In addition, a customer buying Itanium servers can get them from multiple companies, whereas Power5 comes only from IBM.

"Proprietary" and "open" are relative terms, though. Itanium systems are available from several server makers, but the chip is only available from Intel. At the same time, Power servers come only from IBM, but many other companies sell variants of the Power chip for various other segments of the computing market.

And while HP currently can't split subdivide a processor so it can run several operating systems, that feature is coming, Jenkins said. "We are close to bringing out sub-CPU partitioning capability as well," he said.

Two factors likely will mean Itanium systems ultimately will outship Power servers, said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. The main reason: "Itanium systems can address not only the proprietary Unix market, but also the Windows market," he said. The other factor: "If you want a Power system, you're going to buy it from IBM. If you want an Itanium system, you can buy it from HP, NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and others."

HP and Intel argued that Itanium would bring a radical new design to last 20 years--far beyond the RISC (reduced instruction set computing) chips such as IBM's Power and Sun's UltraSparc. But so far, that advantage hasn't shown up, Eunice said. "Nothing I have seen indicates the Power architecture is running out of steam."