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Unix servers breaking out all over

Compaq Computer and SGI are showing off new systems at the same time that powerhouses IBM and Sun Microsystems release new machines.

The Unix server floodgates are opening this week, with Compaq Computer and SGI showing off new systems at the same time that powerhouses IBM and Sun Microsystems release new machines.

Compaq has begun shipping test versions of a new line of AlphaServer Unix servers using the EV7 "Marvel" version of the company's Alpha processor, the Houston-based company said Monday. The system uses direct connections between processors, forgoing the usual high-speed switch that typically connects processors in high-end systems, Compaq said.

Also moving ahead is SGI, which thus far hasn't been able to escape the graphics and technical-computing niche and break into the broader business market. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced a Unix machine tuned to broadcast markets and began showing its next-generation "Fuel" workstation. The system is based on the top-end 3000 family of Onyx workstations and Origin servers, which have high-speed connections linking processors, memory and video.

But Compaq and SGI haven't achieved the market success of competing Unix servers from IBM, Sun and Hewlett-Packard. Those larger companies are moving aggressively as well, trying to eke sales out of a Unix market that shrank 18.7 percent from $25.3 billion in 2000 to $20.6 billion in 2001.

As expected, IBM released on Monday its p670, a 16-processor machine that's essentially a smaller version of Big Blue's top-end 32-processor p690 "Regatta" server introduced in late 2001.

The p670 has a starting price of $178,000 with four processors, $317,000 with eight, and $536,000 with 16, IBM said. The system can be divided into as many as 16 "partitions"--essentially mini-servers within the overall system--but IBM hasn't yet released software that will allow the sizes of those partitions to be changed without rebooting.

p670server Big Blue's newest machine will compete chiefly against the Unix servers from HP, long king of the midrange market, and from Sun, which will release its own midrange offering, the "Starkitty," on Tuesday. The Starkitty is a lesser version of Sun's 72-processor Sun Fire 15K "Starcat" system.

HP, whose midrange 16-processor rp8400 also has advanced features culled from the company's top-end Superdome model, said Monday that it's the "preferred" provider of servers for some Oracle software used by HP customers to handle interactions with their own customers.

In regard to Compaq's chip and server designs, the company decided to cancel the highly regarded Alpha chip and adopt Intel's Itanium family instead, a move that's not complicated too much by the HP-Compaq merger because HP plans a similar move later with its own PA-RISC chip. HP spawned the idea behind the Itanium family and is working gradually to move from its PA-RISC processors to the Itanium family. Compaq's EV7 will be the last major version of the Alpha.

Compaq's design expertise is expected to live on, though, whether as part of HP or not. The company's designers have built features into the EV7 AlphaServers that can let the systems diagnose and repair some problems, correct data transfer problems automatically, and be easily expanded.

The new EV7 systems are in testing at health care computing company Cerner, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and the French Atomic Commission's Military Applications Department.

SGI also announced at the National Association of Broadcasters conference a new video-on-demand server, a machine that can send out 600 video streams simultaneously. The system is based on the Origin 300 server and has two or four processors, as much as 4GB of memory, and a TP900 storage system. It can be used to send video on networks using Ethernet, Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) or Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB), SGI said.

Sun, however, is making moves of its own in the market. It teamed up with Sony, which will build video-on-demand servers incorporating Sun computers, the companies said Monday.