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IBM goes after Sun Fire 280Rs

With tweaked pSeries 610

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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

IBM Corp will announce today that it has tweaked the entry-level pSeries 610 "Colt" servers that it announced last fall so they better compete against the Sun Fire 280R "Littleneck" servers from rival Sun Microsystems.

The modified pSeries 610 includes an integrated RAID 5 disk controller on the motherboard that IBM says significantly improves the reliability of the server while decreasing the power requirements of RAID 5 configurations on the prior pSeries 610 design.

The pSeries 610 is two-way server that uses two flavors of Power3-II processors from IBM: either 375MHz processors with 4 MB of L2 cache or 450MHz processors with 8MB of L2 cache. The pSeries 610 fits in a 5U form factor in its rack-mounted version, and is also available in a tower configuration. The server can be equipped with up to 8GB of main memory, and it includes two integrated 10/100 Mbit Ethernet adapters. The server can accommodate up to 291GB of disk capacity using 36GB disk drives. It has five PCI expansion slots.

The Sun Fire 280R has a little more performance than the pSeries 610, even though the UltraSparc-III processors used in the 280R run - at 750MHz and 900MHz - at a significantly higher clock speed. Our best estimates are that a uniprocessor pSeries 610 with two 450MHz Power3-II processor has a rating of about 15,000 TPM on the TPC-C online transaction processing test. A two-way Sun Fire 280R using the 750MHz processors would probably have a rating of about 17,000 TPM and a machine using the 900MHz UltraSparc-III processors would probably hit around 20,000 TPM.

The UltraSparc-III processors used in the Sun Fire 280R are equipped with 8MB of L2 cache. Each 280R can, like the IBM Colt, have one or two processors.

The Sun 280R comes in a 4U form factor, which makes it a little more compact than the IBM server. Main memory can be expanded to 8GB if necessary, and the server has four PCI slots. The 280R only has two disk slots, however, and can only have a maximum of 72GB of disk capacity. To get RAID 5 data protection, Sun Fire customers have to acquire outboard disk arrays, such as Sun's StorEdge A1000 arrays. This is where IBM is focusing its marketing and, to a small extent, its engineering focus.

According to IBM, a pSeries 610 with the integrated RAID 5 disk controller will have disk transfers that are four times faster than those between the Sun Fire 280R and the A1000 arrays. The pSeries machine, says IBM, will also consume less electricity and throw off less heat. IBM rifled through its own and Sun's documentation to compare a fully loaded pSeries 610 server and a fully loaded Sun Fore 280R server with a similar amount of storage capacity.

IBM says that the pSeries 610 consumes a maximum of 450 watts and throws off 1,536 BTUs per hour of heat; a fully configured Sun 280R server alone will eat 810 watts of power and throw off 3,140 BTUs of power per hour; adding an A1000 disk array, says IBM, will boost the total electricity used to 1,070 watts and the heat dissipation to 4,232 BTUs per hour.

IBM also tried to claim in its announcement that the pSeries Colt server was a lot less expensive than the Sun Fire 280R, but its price comparisons were
bogus. (IBM compared the cost of an outdated pSeries 610 with a 333MHz processor and one disk drive to a Sun Fire 280R with a 900MHz processor and an A1000 with four disk drives. This is blatantly lopsided in IBM's favor.)

A Sun 280R with two 900MHz UltraSparc-III processors, 4GB of main memory, and 73 GB of disk capacity sells for $22,995; an A1000 with 145GB of disk capacity (four disks) sells for $10,500. That brings the price tag for the total Sun 280R/A1000 combo, which eats up 8Us of rack space, to $33,495. The existing pSeries 610 with two 450MHz Power3-II processors, six disk drives with a total of 200GB of disk capacity sells for $21,066.

It is unclear what IBM will charge for the integrated RAID 5 controller on the new Colt motherboards, but as long as it is only a few grand - or better still, free - a reasonably heavy configured pSeries Colt will be less expensive than a 280R/A1000 combo. IBM's solution appears more compact and less costly, which makes it even more puzzling as to why IBM's marketeers didn't make fair comparisons in the first place.

What is clear is that if you calculate bang for the buck using these vendor list prices and our performance estimates, the amount of water between IBM and Sun for entry servers equipped with RAID 5 capability is not as much as you might think. The Sun 280R server configured above costs 60 cents per TPM. If IBM gives away the integrated RAID 5 controller and keeps its prices the same for all other components, then the pSeries 610 configuration we outlined above costs 71 cents per TPM.

Of course, IBM is willing to discount at 45% off list to get into Sun accounts according to sources involved in bargaining, and Sun will lop off 15% on entry servers without even thinking about it. That puts the IBM solution at around 40 cents per TPM and Sun at around 50 cents per TPM. The Sun configurations will eat up twice as much rack space, of course, and if IBM's reading of the operational manuals is correct, they will also require more electricity and air conditioning, too.

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