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IBM boosts high-end Unix servers

Brings Power5+ chip to top-end servers, boosting performance during rapid change in server market. Photo: The p5-595 Unix server

IBM has brought the Power5+ processor to its top-end Unix servers, completing the transition and boosting performance during a period of rapid change in the server market.

The company's 16-processor System p5-590 and 32-processor p5-595 will ship with the 2.3GHz Power5+ beginning Aug. 11, the company plans to announce Tuesday. The upgrade wrings about 30 percent more performance out of a system than the 1.9GHz Power5, said Karl Freund, vice president of IBM's System p Unix server line, formerly called pSeries.

The new systems arrive at an important moment. Sun Microsystems, though vanquished from its former position at the top of the Unix server heap, has been resurgent with systems using its UltraSparc IV+ processor. And Intel, whose Itanium processors are used in Hewlett-Packard's Unix systems, has just announced a new model code-named Montecito.

Double-frame server

IBM could use a kick in its server business. In overall server revenue, HP made up ground to tie IBM for first place in the first quarter of 2006, according to market researcher IDC.

"In the latest quarter, we had customers holding off purchasing (while) waiting for the introduction of Power5+ into the high end. This will fill those expectations," Freund said. "Hopefully, it will give us the boost we need at the high end."

End of "forklift upgrade"
With the new Power5+ generation comes a new element to IBM's server strategy: the end of the "forklift upgrade." Instead of customers having to buy entire new servers, refrigerator-size machines that often weigh one ton, they'll be able to upgrade just the internal processor-memory boards when they want to upgrade to Power6, due to arrive in 2007, Freund said.

"We've always been a forklift upgrade. It drives our customer account reps crazy," Freund said. HP and Sun have offered board upgrades for years and criticized IBM for its design the entire time.

The board upgrade applies not just to the p5-590 and p5-595, but also to the midrange p5-570, Freund said.

IBM didn't have specific pricing information but said the new servers would be slotted in at about the same price as the previous Power5-based models.

Along with the new server, IBM plans to announce a new world record on the TPC-C server speed test, with the p5-595 able to perform 4.02 million database transactions per minute. That's 25 percent better than the last top spot, the Power5-based p5-595 at 3.21 million.

The top non-IBM result is a 2005 test of HP's Itanium-based Superdome, clocked at 1.23 million transactions per minute, but the Palo Alto, Calif.-based rival is toiling over a more up-to-date score with the "Montecito" chips, the first Itaniums to follow the dual-core server pathway that IBM pioneered in 2001.

HP's Montecito-based models are due to begin shipping in September, though beginning with low-end models rather than the top-end Superdome.

New virtualization
IBM was a pioneer in dividing a separate system into many partitions that handle multiple jobs efficiently, a process that requires technology called virtualization. While the idea debuted in mainframes, it's now commonplace on Unix servers and arriving on mainstream machines with servers that use x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

With the 595 announcement, IBM also is adding new virtualization technology based on IBM's acquisition in 2005 of CIMS Labs. The software, part of IBM's Tivoli management suite, lets customers monitor exactly how much processing, networking and storage a given application uses. That can improve capacity planning so administrators don't buy more computing horsepower than they need, and it also can help when companies charge particular divisions for how much computer time they use, Freund said.

The new monitoring software product is called the Tivoli Usage and Accounting Manager.

One significant change with the Power5+ generation is the use of DDR2 memory. Although the faster processor was responsible for about 40 percent of the improved TPC-C score, the faster memory accounted for about 25 percent, Freund said.

IBM also upgraded processors in the rest of its System p line, according to its announcements to customers.

• The p5-550 now can be purchased with a dual-core, 2.1GHz Power5+. The p5-550Q, which uses a chip package called a quad-core module, is available with 1.65GHz Power5+ chips.

• The p5-510 is available with single-core and dual-core 2.1GHz Power5+ processors. The p5-510Q is available in a quad-core, 1.65GHz configuration.

• The p5-505 is available with a single-core 1.9GHz Power5+ with no L3 cache memory; a dual-core Power5+ with 36MB L3 cache; and a dual-core 2.1GHz Power5+ with 36MB cache. The p5-505Q is available in a quad-core, 1.65GHz configuration.