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IBM server counts on brains over brawn

The company unveils its top-end Unix server, marking Big Blue's departure from the industry's assumption that more processors makes a better computer.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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  IBM unleashes new Regatta server
Dan Powers, VP Server Strategy, IBM
IBM unveiled its top-end Unix server Thursday, marking Big Blue's departure from the industry's assumption that more processors makes a better computer.

IBM already has disclosed many features of the 32-processor p690, code-named Regatta, including its Power4 processors that package two CPUs on a single slice of silicon, its self-healing abilities, and the multi-chip module packaging of its CPUs.

As earlier reported, IBM now has revealed the pricing for the system--about a third the cost of a competing Sun Fire 15K "Starcat" server with the same memory and number of processors--and has offered details on the 128-processor Regatta alternative that never saw the light of day.

IBM embarked on the Regatta course in late 1996, when the company was a distant third behind Sun in the Unix market, said Ravi Arimilli, chief scientist of IBM's Power technology development. The goal was to outdo Sun, and initially the plan was for a 128-processor behemoth using the same design philosophy of Sun as well as IBM's pre-Regatta servers.

"For us to get to leadership, we had to do something to convince people to migrate to our platform," Arimilli said. IBM had embarked on a multiyear effort to recapture the market Sun had found so lucrative.

After a year of brainstorming, though, IBM discarded the 128-processor system in favor of a very different design: fewer CPUs with super-high-speed connections to each other, to memory and to input-output systems that lead outside the server to the network and storage devices.

Gartner analysts James Cassell and Charles Burns say that if IBM executes its road map for eLiza, the project that provides the self-healing technologies that are a part of its new Regatta server, it may well beat out its competitors.

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While Sun, Fujitsu Technology Solutions and others compete to cram more CPUs into a server, "IBM's approach is the opposite. We're going to bring the workload onto a server with lower CPU count," said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day.

That's important because database software leader Oracle prices its products according to the number of CPUs it runs on, and server software sellers SAP, Baan and Siebel Systems are following suit, Day said. Consequently, IBM's approach will carry weight with budget-wary customers.

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said Oracle's license typically costs between $30,000 and $40,000 per processor.

IBM's p690 'Regatta' server Each Power4 chip, with two CPUs, is packaged on a 4-inch-square ceramic multi-chip module with three other Power4 brethren. The multi-chip module, a 60-layer ceramic package, is filled with wiring to join the chips to neighbors, to 128MB modules of cache memory, and to a high-speed switch to reach the more distant CPUs.

The upshot, according to Arimilli: "Close to twice the performance of Sun with half the microprocessors."

Sun's not buying it. Chief Marketing Officer John Loiacono said Regatta competes against Sun's midrange Sun Fire 6800 system, a 24-processor machine introduced in March.

Benchmark brawl
And Loiacono disparages performance-measuring benchmarks such as TPC-C, saying Sun prefers to focus on how well its servers work with real-world software.

Day believes results of benchmark tests are important as the first judgments potential customers make and says IBM will look better in the benchmarks. "I really believe they'll probably come close to crossing 450,000 (transactions per second) on a 32-processor system. That's just unbelievable," he said.

Day said Sun is bowing out of benchmark competition because it doesn't want to pay the $1.5 million or more it costs to run an audited TPC-C benchmark test when it knows it's not going to win.

Regatta uses CPUs running at either 1.1GHz or 1.3GHz, but soon the company will increase that to 1.5GHz and 2GHz, Arimilli said.

A key strength Sun has, though, is its strong software base. It's the Unix server of choice for companies that sell server software, analysts say. IBM is fighting to convince software companies to make their software work on its Unix servers as well.

Unix servers, resurgent after products from Intel and Microsoft failed to live up to promises that their servers would quickly take over, are the biggest part of the overall server market. Research firm IDC calculates that Unix server sales totaled $29 billion in 2000, nearly half of the entire $60 billion server market.

Regatta is important to IBM as it tries to convince customers that its Unix servers have a glorious future ahead, but it's only a small part of the vast IBM revenue stream. At Sun, however, Unix servers account for the bulk of the company's sales, and Starcat is crucial.

Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi estimates that high-end Unix servers such as Starcat and its "Starfire" predecessor account for 8 percent to 9 percent of Sun's revenue. When adding in the storage, services and software revenue, though, the high-end servers make up 25 percent of Sun's operating profits, he said.

At IBM, by comparison, high-end machines are about 1 percent of revenue and 4 percent to 5 percent of operating profit, Sacconaghi said.

In full configurations, Regatta will cost more than $1 million, said Rod Adkins, general manager of IBM's Unix server division. Pricing starts, however, at $450,000 for an eight-way 1.1GHz system with 8GB of memory and 36.4GB of storage. The system will begin shipping in volume in December.

Hewlett-Packard, still ahead of IBM in the Unix server market, has its own top-end Superdome Unix server and just announced a promotion to lure Sun and IBM customers.

But HP has lost market share to IBM in Unix server sales, and Day believes HP is vulnerable because of uncertainties raised by its proposed acquisition of Compaq Computer.

Divide and conquer
A key feature in Unix servers is "partitioning," the ability to divide a single large server into smaller systems. Regatta is the first IBM Unix server with this feature, which Big Blue built into its mainframes years ago and which Sun has had for four years on its top-end Unix servers.

Sun's partitioning uses a hardware-based system with a minimum partition size of four processors. IBM's approach uses software and has a minimum partition size of a single processor. In the future--Day estimates by March or at the latest June--IBM will make it possible to use partitioning so numerous servers can run on a single CPU.

Both Starcat and Regatta will appeal to companies wanting to replace a gaggle of lesser servers with an easier-to-manage large server. But the ability to run more than 100 servers on a single CPU means Regatta can replace many more types of servers than Starcat.