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IBM readies new top-end Unix servers

Big Blue announced the servers Friday, stirring up major new challenges for Sun and HP.

IBM announced two new top-end Unix servers Friday, creating major challenges to Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

The new servers are the biggest iron in IBM's Squadron family of servers, which use the Power5 processor, a chip that has two processing engines, or cores, on each slice of silicon. As expected, the p5-590 has 16 Power5 chips and 32 cores, while the p5-595 has 32 Power5 chips and 64 cores.


What's new:
IBM is readying two new top-end Unix servers that use the Power5 processor, a chip that has two processing engines, or cores, on each slice of silicon.

Bottom line:
The new servers open a new front for Big Blue in its effort to surpass No. 1 Sun Microsystems and No. 2 Hewlett-Packard in the Unix server market.

More stories on Unix servers

Unix servers, powerful yet fairly standardized, occupy a major part of the computing landscape for tasks such as tracking retail inventory. IBM trails No. 1 Sun and No. 2 HP in the Unix server market, but the new Power5 systems are a key part of Big Blue's Unix ambitions.

"Our goal is to beat Sun and perhaps become the No. 1 Unix sever this year in the U.S., based on revenue for all 2004," said Karl Freund, vice president for IBM's pSeries Unix systems. "The next goal is to be No. 1 in the world. We think we can get to No. 2 in 2005 and No. 1 in 2006."

In addition, IBM announced a third system, the i5-595, which uses the same hardware as the p5-595 but runs Big Blue's i5/OS operating system for midsize customers that like pre-assembled software bundles. The i5 and both p5 models also can run Linux.

IBM is pricing the systems aggressively--indeed, they're less expensive than the current systems using the Power4+ processors. "Compared to the p690, the 590 is roughly 45 percent faster and 40 percent cheaper," Freund said.

Aggressive pricing
A p5-590 with 16 1.65GHz processor cores--half the total capacity--and 32GB of memory costs $745,000, compared with $1.36 million for a Power4-based p690 with 16 1.9GHz processor cores, Freund said. At the top end, a p5-595 with the maximum 64 1.9GHz processor cores will cost $4.13 million, Freund said.

The systems will be generally available Nov. 19.

IBM's first Squadron products were low-end and midrange systems. The current and new models feature "virtualization" technology that lets a single server, or even a single processor, run multiple operating systems.

IBM admits to having been caught flat-footed by the boom in Unix server sales that chiefly benefited Sun in the late 1990s. But since then, it has been working overtime to make up for it. Even its rivals agree IBM's efforts have paid off.

For example, the performance of the new Power5 systems wowed Sun.

"We've had folks in labs trying to tear apart their benchmarks, thinking they're doing benchmarketing, not benchmarking. But the reality is the benchmarks are looking damned good," said Larry Singer, Sun's chief competitive officer.

Vish Mulchand, director of HP server marketing, acknowledged, "They definitely have some benefits in Power5."

But neither rival is throwing in the towel.

Competitive counterattacks
HP is betting that its servers with Intel's Itanium processors--in particular, the dual-core "Montecito" chip scheduled to arrive in 2005--will beat out IBM's. "By the time we get our Montecito (servers) out there, I think we'll leapfrog them again," Mulchand said.

Sun, too, expects a boost from future processors such as the UltraSparc IV+, due in 2005 and promising to double performance over current systems. "We'll respond with price reductions and continuing innovation," Singer said.

Mulchand also said he believes that HP will have some breathing room because the full performance gains promised by Power5 require an updated version of the AIX operating system, version 5.3, while most software today works with version 5.2.

In addition, HP's Itanium servers can run Windows as well as Linux and Unix, something neither Sun or IBM Unix servers can do.

But analysts see vulnerabilities at HP and Sun.

Sun is distracted by its push to embrace x86 chips, chiefly Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "They really are at some level walking away from the high-end systems. It's really not where Sun's head is at right now," he said.

And HP, like its ally Intel, is still struggling with the transition to Itanium. "Itanium's going nowhere," said Sageza Group analyst Clay Ryder. Existing HP Unix customers faced with the necessity to rework their software for a new processor foundation can choose IBM and Sun Unix servers, which have larger customer bases than Itanium Unix servers, he said.

IBM believes it can beat the performance of Montecito with its current Power5 systems, Freund said, and the company will have a faster version called Power5+ due to arrive in 2005.

Sun jump-started the high-end Unix server business in the mid-1990s with its 64-processor E10000, a design the company acquired from Cray. HP followed suit with its 64-processor Superdome models, which initially used the company's own PA-RISC chips but which now are also available with Intel's Itanium.

IBM entered the game in 2001 with its pSeries 690, which had 16 dual-core Power4 processors. Although the p690 had fewer chips, the system posted record speed test results on some important benchmarks.

Slicing and dicing
Unix servers come with more than a lot of chips and memory, though; they can be sliced into independent pieces through technology generally called partitioning. That provides helpful versatility; a single system can ease administration burdens by replacing several smaller machines with one larger one. In the case of IBM and HP, it can run operating systems besides Unix, and partition sizes can be expanded or shrunk to accommodate varying workloads.

Sun and HP beat IBM to the market with partitioning in Unix servers, but IBM's mainframe server line indicates that Big Blue already has years of experience.

IBM touted a new speed test that spotlights partitioning and its underlying technology, called virtualization. The test, called the Virtualization Grand Slam benchmark, measures how well multiple tasks run in multiple partitions.

For example, IBM used it to see how much better a system performed when busy partitions could expand to use the computing resources of those that were comparatively idle.

The benchmark can reflect how well partitioning and virtualization technology shares resources such as memory and communications channels. IBM hopes its rivals will offer benchmark results of their own so that customers can compare different servers.

However, Freund said, IBM still has a way to go before its Unix servers catch up to its mainframes. For example, only a mainframe can automatically expand or shrink partitions to make sure transactions are completed in a certain amount of time, he said. And mainframe applications run 99.999 percent of the time--going down for only about five minutes per year--whereas only the hardware foundation of IBM's Unix servers show that kind of reliability.