IBM, Sun in server benchmark battle

Who's got the stronger Unix server? A new benchmark test puts Sun ahead of Big Blue, but the order could change as more tests are run.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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2 min read
Sun Microsystems has leapfrogged ahead of IBM in one part of a contest to see whose top-end Unix server is more powerful.

The challenge pits Sun's 72-processor E15K Starcat server against IBM's 32-processor p690 "Regatta" machine. The yardstick is SPECjbb, a benchmark that measures how well a computer handles server programs that use Sun's Java software.

Sun fired the first salvo when the E15K was launched in September, scoring 324,000 transactions per second on the SPECjbb benchmark, which simulates the measuring of a company's warehouse inventory as orders are placed, checked and processed.

IBM came back in December, trumpeting that it defeated Sun with 339,000 transactions per second. On Monday, Sun regained the lead with a score of 404,000 transactions.

Though universally acknowledged to be an incomplete measure of a server's merits, benchmarks are nevertheless important. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, spent more than $1 million trying to track down problems hampering performance tests of its top-end Superdome machine. In that case, sabotage turned out to be the issue.

Competition is cutthroat in the hot Unix server market, which boasted $26 billion in sales in 2000, according to IDC. IBM is fighting to topple current leader Sun, and former leader HP came close to Sun's sales in the third quarter of 2001.

High-end Unix servers run core operations at many large companies, such as the sort of inventory control replicated by the benchmarks. Price tags often exceed $1 million, and sales are coveted because they can lead to years-long business relationships and also draw along sales of other hardware, software and services.

Sun may have the top spot in the SPECjbb running, but there are other benchmarks to watch. Probably the highest profile belongs to the Transaction Processing Performance Council's TPC-C, an inventory test that's similar to SPECjbb but doesn't use Java. Fujitsu Technology Solutions leads this race, with HP in second place.

IBM is working on its p690 result, but Sun has declined to enter that competition. Sun says it prefers to work with customers to show performance on real-world tasks, but the assumption by outside observers is that Sun doesn't expect to win the p690 race.

Prices also are an issue in benchmarks, and IBM has been pricing its systems aggressively in its attempt to topple Sun from the top of the Unix server heap.