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IBM serves up Unix, new image

The company rejuvenates its Unix server line, unveiling new attitude as well as new products as it tries to cash in on the hoopla about e-commerce and overtake its biggest competitors.

SAN FRANCISCO--IBM rejuvenated its Unix server line today, unveiling new attitude as well as new products as it tries to cash in on the hoopla about e-commerce and overtake its biggest competitors.

With new servers and a richly funded promotional and development effort, IBM's goal is to overtake competitors Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard to become the top seller of Unix servers, IBM executives said today. Tied into today's announcement also is an attempt to grow beyond the conservative, buttoned-down IBM image and capture some of the fast-paced energy of the Internet.

"We clearly have a new attitude," said Rod Adkins, general manager of the RS/6000 line of Unix servers, sporting a suit with no tie at a company famous for requiring conservative attire. That new "cool" attitude is designed to attract the "Net generation," Adkins said, a quickly growing market segment that extends beyond IBM's more traditional business customer base.

In its effort to become the top seller of Unix servers, IBM is spending much more than $800 million in research, development, and marketing, Adkins said. Part of that money is going toward IBM's first ads for servers on television, the "Magic Box" series, he said.

Though it's been successful in associating its name with e-commerce, IBM has a ways to go to catch up to Sun Microsystems, the company that has most successfully associated its name with the Internet, according to many analysts.

"Sun got out in front in Unix shipments and revenues, and everyone wants to catch them. IBM has been running behind," International Data Corporation analyst Jean Bozman said today. "IBM and HP would like to go back and get some market share at Sun's expense."

The Unix server business still is big for Sun's competitors, however. Each of the three companies has revenues on the order of $4 billion a year, Bozman said.

As previously reported, IBM debuted two new machines today, one at the high end of the line and one at the low end. The top-end S80, code-named the "Condor," is aimed at jobs where hundreds or thousands of users tie into the server and perform lots of transactions.

The low-end B50, code-named "Pizzazz," is designed to be sold in large quantities to Internet companies that need to pack as many basic servers into as few square feet as possible. That system will be priced starting at $4,000 and will include a garden-variety PowerPC processor once found in Apple desktop computers.

IBM also updated its AIX version of the Unix operating system, the basic software that's in charge of a computer. The new software includes many performance improvements, including some built-in features that make it better at serving up Web pages, said Gerry Hackett, vice president of AIX development. The new AIX also has improvements similar to HP's WebQOS product that automatically gives faster service to important customers.

IBM unleashed a flurry of news releases from dozens of software companies supporting the new products. Software support is important for new servers, particularly in buttoned-down business environments, where software must be rigorously tested before it is put to use.

Software partners include Oracle, a top database company. David Dargo said the S80 allows 21,000 users to connect to the system simultaneously, an increase of more than three times over previous IBM computers. IBM, though it has its own database software that competes fiercely with Oracle's, made special adjustments to AIX to enable Oracle to run better, Hackett said.

Thin is in
Skinny servers that can be bolted to racks are all the rage these days. IBM's B50 joins Sun's "Flapjack," Compaq's DS10, and models from HP and others.

Yellow Dog Linux runs on the new IBM servers, the Linux seller said. Linux is popular in some areas because--unlike AIX and other proprietary versions of Unix--a company doesn't have to pay dearly for each copy.

The giant Condor
The S80, about 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall, has a new architecture that uses a high-speed switch to connect four groups of six RS64-III "Pulsar" processors to four banks of memory.

The S80 line is the first to use chips that have copper interconnect technology, which allows more processing power and speed to be packed on a single chip. Each chip has 34 million transistors and runs at 450 MHz, the company said.

In 2001, IBM will debut its Power4 chip, which will use another new IBM manufacturing technology called "silicon on insulator," or SOI, that will be needed to make the chips even faster, said Tony Befi, IBM's vice president of advanced technology development. The Power4 will package two CPUs along with a large chunk of high-speed "cache" memory, will have 170 million transistors, and will run at a speed of more than 1 GHz, he said.

With prices ranging from $290,000 to more than $1 million, the S80 doesn't come cheap. But IBM says that for a given performance level, the S80 costs between a third and half as much as Sun's top-end E10000 server.