IBM launches salvo in server wars with new hardware

Big Blue will fire its third volley in the Unix server wars by introducing its new top-end model just weeks after rivals HP and Sun Microsystems release competing products.

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Stephen Shankland
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IBM will fire off the third volley of the Unix server wars Monday when it introduces a new top-end model just weeks after rivals Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems released competing products.

The eServer pSeries 680, formerly known as the S85 Turbo, comes with new processors that improve performance 60 percent to 65 percent from the S80 predecessor, said Mike Kerr, vice president of IBM's line of Unix servers.

The servers, formerly known as the RS/6000 line, now are called pSeries computers under a server re-branding initiative.

With the 24-processor 680 and a 32-processor successor--code-named Regatta--due a year from now, IBM hopes to become the top-ranked Unix server seller, passing No. 1 Sun and No. 2 HP, Kerr said.

"That's the objective," he said, but he acknowledged that such a victory isn't likely to happen soon. "It doesn't happen overnight. There's a lot of work to do."

When the 680 begins shipping Nov. 17, it will face two main competitors: HP's Superdome server, which was unveiled in September, and Sun's 64-processor E10000, a 4-year-old design that's still selling well.

Competition will also come from relatively new machines from Compaq, SGI and Unisys.

It is no surprise that there's this much competition for the market. A few years ago, Unix servers, which range in price from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million, seemed destined for the tech museum as analysts expected versions of Windows for servers to take off. The popularity of the Internet, however, and the sudden need for intensive computing power revived interest in the technology.

The Unix server market generated sales of $25.6 billion in 1999 and is growing fast, according to market research firm IDC.

IBM and HP have been reviving their Unix units aggressively, while executives from both companies acknowledge that they missed an opportunity that has given Sun record profits and revenues quarter after quarter.

The S80 helped IBM briefly steal back a little market share from Sun, while HP has mostly chipped away at the low-end market. Sun, however, launched a new line of servers in September that will span the market. The company will start with low-end two-processor models and reach a crescendo next spring with a 105-processor machine.

The major difference between IBM's S80 and the 680 is the addition of new processors with IBM's silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, Kerr said. By putting an insulator--a layer that doesn't conduct electricity--next to the chip circuitry, the heat caused by electrical currents is reduced.

SOI therefore enables faster chips that run at the same temperature as non-SOI brethren. Overheated chips contribute to processing errors that can cause the computer to crash or produce faulty results.

The S80's CPUs run at 450 MHz, whereas the 680 CPUs run at 600 MHz, he said, but IBM didn't have to redesign the server or its cooling system.

To accommodate the faster CPUs' demand for information, IBM had to double the cache size from 8MB to 16MB per processor, the company said. In addition, IBM increased the total system memory available from 64GB in the S80 to 96GB in the 680.

IBM will continue to sell the S80 with prices unchanged, Kerr said. The 680 will cost more, and machines with maximum memory and CPUs will cost more than $1 million.

With the new server, IBM is introducing a "capacity on demand" program similar to ones offered by HP and Sun. The program allows customers to buy a server with more processors than are needed initially, paying for only the processors that are used plus a small premium. Then, if computing demands increase, the new processors can be switched on, at which point the customer pays IBM for the new chips, Kerr said.

"In the end, when you turn them on, it costs you a little bit more than if you wanted and bought them separately," Kerr added.