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IBM speeds up low-end Unix server

Big Blue is upgrading its least-expensive Unix server with its newest Power processor in an effort to keep pressure on longtime leader Sun Microsystems.

IBM will upgrade its least-expensive Unix server with its newest Power processor in an effort to keep pressure on longtime leader Sun Microsystems.

IBM's four-processor p630, originally announced in June 2002, with a 1GHz Power4 processor, will now also be available with a 1.45GHz Power4+ processor, said Jim McGaughan, director of IBM's server strategy. The system is geared to compete with systems such as Sun's popular four-processor Sun Fire v480.

IBM's Power4+ processor debuted in the eight-processor p650 released in November, and IBM plans to move the faster chip to its other Unix servers in coming months. The Power4+ uses a newer manufacturing process with smaller electronic circuitry that permits higher clock speeds, lower power consumption and ultimately lower costs.

McGaughan declined to say when exactly the Power4+ would arrive on higher-end 16-processor p670 and 32-processor p690 servers, but when asked if the first half of 2003 was likely, he responded, "Your speculation looks good to me."

IBM has been reclaiming ground lost to Sun, which rose in the 1990s to the top of the Unix server market. But Sun thus far has warded off attacks on its position, keeping the top Unix server market share and defending its position with new products such as the 12-processor v1280 and speedier top-end machines.

Hewlett-Packard, which does well with its midrange Unix servers, also has kept its second-place ranking despite the IBM pressure.

Sun long has dominated the lower-end Unix server market, maintaining its product development while others retreated in the face of the onslaught of Intel-based servers running Microsoft Windows, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"Whenever the Unix boys--Digital, Compaq, IBM, HP--took on Wintel, they routinely lost and lost badly. They just got their butts kicked," Eunice said. But Sun "fought the fight...and they have changed the thinking at IBM," he said.

"If Sun had not shown the way and been first into the breach, I can almost guarantee you the Unix world would be saying, 'We still can't fight them,'" Eunice said.

Where the Power4 processor initially was packaged only for high-end servers, the Power5 processor is being designed for lower-end machines as well.

Power5, due in systems in 2004, will quadruple overall system speed, Big Blue said this week.

In the nearer term, McGaughan said, the performance increase of roughly 33 percent for the new Power4+ p630s will outweigh the cost increase. For a single-processor p630 with 2GB of memory, the price increases from $17,627 to $20,025 with the new chip; on a four-processor model with 8GB of memory, the price goes from $39,595 to $53,450.

IBM reduced the cost of the higher-end systems by reducing the amount of high-speed cache memory that accompanies each processor, McGaughan said. The 1GHz Power4 chips each come with 32MB of cache, whereas the 1.45GHz Power4+ chips come with 8MB of cache.

"We went to this approach to make sure we had a very affordable price for our customers," McGaughan said. Customers wanting more cache and the higher processor speed can buy a p650, he added.

The p630s also run Linux, alone or in one of four "partitions" into which the system can be subdivided. IBM's pSeries machines typically run the AIX version of Unix, but the company has rejuvenated its work to bring Linux to the systems.

Using Linux and not paying for the AIX license means customers save $1,500, $3,000 or $5,000, respectively, for a single-, dual-, or four-processor p630, McGaughan said.