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IBM, Sequent deal pressures SGI, others

IBM's intended $810 million acquisition of Sequent Computers could have broad implications for Big Blue's customers but also for other server companies.

IBM's intended $810 million acquisition of Sequent Computers could have broad implications for Big Blue's customers but could also hit SGI and other midsize server companies.

With Sequent--which IBM announced it was buying yesterday--a number of technologies that could gain in popularity in coming years have now become in-house projects at Big Blue.

The deal shores up IBM?s position in Project Monterey, a next-generation version of the Unix operating system in which IBM and Sequent are partners, and fills a gap in IBM's server hardware lineup. By buying Sequent, IBM reaps the technology benefits Sequent brings to Monterey, while removing obstacles slowing development, analysts said.

Most importantly, the acquisition of Sequent brings NUMA (non-uniform memory access) technology to Big Blue, a move that's likely raising eyebrows at Data General and SGI, server manufacturers that have their own NUMA servers. The NUMA architecture allows manufacturers to take advantage of far more processors than current Intel-based servers.

Although technically elegant, the NUMA systems haven't met with a critical mass of sales. Until now, the largest Intel server makers have not adopted it. IBM's marketing and technical prowess could change that.

The real question is how far will IBM go with NUMA. For one IT manager at Boeing, which is replacing IBM mainframes with Sequent servers, the answer is clear.

"IBM purchased Sequent because it sees the NUMA technology which Sequent has as the likely successor of the mainframe and very well suited for high-volume database, transaction processing, and e-commerce applications," and William Wichgers, senior system administrator at Boeing.

Server makers reacted in different ways today to the news.

Sun could potentially be affected by the merger, especially if Monterey makes significant gains over Sun's flavor of Unix, Solaris. Sun is also developing a version of its Unix for Merced, but unlike IBM and others it has no plans to build Intel-based servers.

Sun derided IBM as a weak imitation of its successes at selling high-end servers. The Sequent deal means "a weak product from IBM has been complemented by a weak product by Sequent," said Shahin Khan, director of marketing for data center products at Sun.

Data General and SGI are impacted differently by IBM's NUMA thrust, because Data General uses Intel processors while SGI uses MIPS processors. In addition, Data General could gain more than SGI, because its systems would support Monterey. Some are speculating that Data General is now a takeover target.

Linda Mentzer, vice president of Aviion marketing for Data General, welcomed the merger and the opportunities it could create for her company. "It's positive in both the short term and the long term in that it really endorses the Intel-NUMA architecture as the way to scale large Intel systems into the future."

Mentzer predicted that IBM's backing of NUMA would create new business opportunities for Data General.

SGI's situation is more tenuous, at least with regards to NUMA. The company decided not to participate in Monterey, choosing to leverage its brand of Unix, Irix, into the Linux market.

Beau Vrolyk, senior vice president of SGI's server business predicted: "There will be only three operating systems 10 years from now, NT, Monterey, and Linux."

Nonetheless, while doffing his cap to Monterey, Vrolyk discounted any threats to his company, because it does not compete against Sequent for accounts very often. However, the company admits that it competes against IBM in a number of supercomputer contract situation.

Nixing RS/6000
The biggest immediate question for IBM customers may be what happens to IBM's RS/6000 Unix server.

With Sequent's NUMA technology, IBM for the first time will be able to offer scalable servers beyond four, and soon eight, Intel processors. Sequent's NUMA servers scale up to 64 Intel processors with plans for 256-processor support. NUMA's power and performance would rival IBM's RS/6000 and S/390 server lines.

"The issues with RS/6000 and Netfinity were already there," explained Ferlazzo "This is nothing new--it just accelerates those questions. With the new clustering technology, IBM was getting to the point where the Netfinity was beginning to scale into the midrange RS/6000 space."

IBM server group manager Glenn Rossman argues the comparisons are unfair because Intel-based Netfinity and RS/6000, which uses PowerPC processors, are such different and distinct platforms.