IBM to release cheaper Power4 servers

Big Blue is set to release a new server next week that will let it bring its Power4 processor to the middle range of the Unix server market.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
IBM will come out with a new server next week that will let the company bring its Power4 processor to the middle range of the Unix server market.

The new server, the p630, cuts costs by reducing the number of processors required to build a machine. The server will come with one, two or four processors, sources said.

Currently, all Power4 servers contain a multi-chip module that houses four processors. As a result, the smallest Power4 server, the p670, contains four chips and starts at $178,000, while the next smallest is an eight-processor box that contains two modules.

In contrast, the new system will be able to fit into the market for servers that cost less than $100,000, an area Sun Microsystems dominates.

IBM declined to comment on the upcoming server.

June and July are shaping up to be busy months for the server industry. Along with the p630, Intel plans to soon release Itanium 2, a 64-bit chip for servers, while Sun plans to come out with low-end servers containing Linux and PC processors. Meanwhile, AMD is on the road trying to persuade manufacturers to adopt its Opteron processor, which comes out next year.

Along with the new package for the Power4, IBM will be able to adjust the configurations of the new server by varying the internal configuration of the Power4 chip.

Unlike any other server chip on the market now, the Power4 contains two processor cores integrated into the same piece of silicon. The core is the calculating engine inside a processor. A four-processor Power4 chip, therefore, acts like an eight-processor server built by any other manufacturer.

IBM, though, also makes a version of the chip with only one active processor core, sources said. By halving the number of cores in the chip, IBM effectively doubles the amount of cache--a performance-enhancing pool of memory located close to the processor for rapid data access.

In particular, customers in the high-performance and scientific computing markets have adopted this chip, according to an IBM representative.

"There are (server) configurations that use single cores," said the representative, who did not comment on the p630.

The single-core version of the chip also gives IBM pricing flexibility, one source said.

From a silicon point of view, the new version of the Power4 is identical to its predecessor, sources said. The difference between the two chips is that in the latest version, the second processor core is not activated.

Leaving circuitry fallow is a common practice in the chip industry. Several of Intel's budget Celeron chips, for instance, are identical to Pentium IIs, IIIs and 4s from a real estate point of view. The difference is that only half of the cache is activated in the Celeron.

Similarly, Itanium 2 will come in versions with either 1.5MB or 3MB of level three cache, but otherwise the versions will be identical.

While leaving unused circuits in a chip adds slightly to the overall cost of manufacturing, it has its advantages. Manufacturers don't have to design a second chip. The less powerful chips can even be made on the same wafers.

IBM unfurled its plans for the Power4 at the Microprocessor Forum in 1999. The chip sits inside the p690 Regatta server introduced last October. While IBM will seek to fit the single-processor version of the chip into less-expensive servers, the company also has plans to bring future members of the Power family into its supercomputers over time.

IBM has already sold 1,000 p690s, which start at $450,000 and come with a minimum of eight processors.