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IBM plans top-end 'Armada' Unix server

Big Blue plans to release a new top-end Unix server in 2004, a 64-processor machine code-named Armada that will feature the company's coming Power5 processor.

IBM plans to release a new top-end Unix server in 2004, a 64-processor machine code-named Armada that will feature the company's coming Power5 processor, a senior Big Blue executive has confirmed.

Armada, the successor to the 32-processor p690 "Regatta" system that IBM introduced more than a year ago, is a Unix server that will come closest so far to matching the capabilities of the company's vaunted mainframe systems. It will take over as the standard-bearer for the company's years-long plan to unseat Sun Microsystems' top ranking in the $21 billion Unix server market.

Nick Bowen, vice president of Unix and Intel server software development at IBM, confirmed details of the system in an interview. A new version of AIX, 5.3, will come in early 2004, he said. Armada itself is expected in the first half of 2004.

Mammoth servers, while more powerful than what the majority of customers need, are still in demand, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"Most do not need (72-processor Sun Microsystems) 15Ks or (64-processor Hewlett-Packard) Superdomes, but from a customer-comfort point of view, you have to have a bigger box than customers currently need," Eunice said. Customers often buy a system that has room to expand, and they want to know they can add more processors and memory as their computing needs grow.

IBM is making progress against Sun. From 2000 to 2001, the last full year for which statistics are available, Big Blue increased its share 2 percentage points to 20 percent of the $21 billion market, while Sun lost 3 percentage points to 35 percent. Hewlett-Packard remained at No. 2 with 21 percent, according to Gartner.

IBM's Armada will use 64 Power5 physical processors, Bowen confirmed, but, by using a design called "simultaneous multithreading," each processor will act in some ways like two separate processors. Simultaneous multithreading is related to Intel's hyper-threading, but while Intel says current hyper-threading gives a chip a modest boost of 20 percent or so, IBM expects simultaneous multithreading will let a single chip do the work of two processors running full-bore.

As a result, the 64-processor system will be the equivalent of a 128-processor server, Bowen said.

Such mammoth systems are rare. Fujitsu sells one today. HP plans two 128-processor "Pinnacle" systems, one using its PA-RISC chips coming by the end of 2003 and one using Itanium chips coming by the end of 2003 or early 2004.

And the big systems are a newer trend at IBM, whose mainframe expertise led its engineers to emphasize a small number of very powerful processors, Eunice said. When they started selling larger multiprocessor systems in 1998 and 1999, though, "They had this coming-to-God experience: 'Wow, people really do want this stuff!'" Eunice said.

A key part of Armada's potential will come not through its oodles of chips but through software, Bowen said. Specifically, the system will come with improved "partitioning" abilities, which let a single computer run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Running multiple operating systems at once, something IBM's top-end mainframe line has been adept at for years, is useful for a variety of functions. Servers can be subdivided to run several tasks, which can be less expensive than buying several independent computers. And the sizes of the different partitions can be changed on the fly to adjust to changing workloads.

Current IBM Unix servers can run one copy of the operating system per processor. But with AIX, the next incarnation of IBM's version of Unix, each processor will be able to handle as many as 10 operating systems, Bowen said. That narrow slicing is good for running large numbers of less demanding jobs on a machine.

Bowen has high hopes for the new version of AIX.

"With AIX 5.3, an early 2004 product, we're going to pretty much catch up to the 390," he said, referring to the S/390 mainframe line that now sports the zSeries label. The improvements will help keep AIX ahead of Linux, a rising star that's beginning to encroach on more seasoned Unix products.

A key part of IBM's approach to multiple partitions is an idea called virtualization, which shields software from the underlying hardware it's using. This level of abstraction makes it possible in current systems to change processors or memory without shutting down computing operations.

AIX 5.3, though, will add a new feature, the virtualization of input-output systems, the last major subsystem. The move will make the machines more flexible to changing computing loads.

With virtualized I/O, as many as 256 copies of AIX will be able to share the same network connection, Bowen said. Current systems require a separate network card for each copy of the operating system.

"It's very important for IBM to get the virtual I/O story," said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day. "It's unclear whether HP will be able to match it at the release time," he said, and HP is a leader in many partitioning technologies.

Power5 processors will be built on a 130-nanometer manufacturing process, IBM has said. That process is the same used for the current top-end Power4+, which runs at 1.2GHz and 1.45GHz.

Day expects that IBM will bring the Power5 processor to midrange and low-end Unix servers in the second half of 2004.