IBM cranks up pSeries Power 4+chip speed

Regatta-Mi goes toe-to-toe with Sun Fire V880

ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

IBM Corp is pulling out the stops in the eight-way Unix and Linux server space this week as it rolls out its pSeries 650 "Regatta-Mi," an eight-way server that uses its new 1.2GHz and 1.45GHz Power4+ processors and aims to take the wind out of Sun's sails (and sales) for its Sun Fire V880 and Sun Fire 3800,

writes Timothy Prickett Morgan


IBM will be picking on the Sun Fire V880 server in most of its marketing material for the pSeries 650, and for good reason. The V880, by the reckoning of the analysts at International Data Corp and relayed to us by the marketing people at Sun, is the volume leader across all operating system platforms in the eight-way space, which is a testament to Sun's wisdom in delivering a stripped down, cost-effective alternative to its relatively pricey Sun Fire 3800 server. The Sun Fire 3800 uses system boards (based on 900MHz or 1.05GHz UltraSparc-III processors) that can be upgraded into other midframe and enterprise Sun Fire servers, which is why the machine carries a premium price. The V880 system boards, a two-way board based on the 900MHz UltraSparc-IIIs, can't be used in the regular Sun Fire machines, and the V880 does not offer the dynamic domain partitioning that is available in the midframe 3800, 4800, and 6800 line and in Sun's enterprise-class Sun Fire 12000 and 15000 servers.

Why bother bringing this up in an IBM pSeries 650 announcement? Because IBM has designed the pSeries 650 to offer the kind of high-end features that compete with the Sun Fire 3800 and is offering the pSeries 650 at prices that compete with the V880. IBM won't be talking so loudly about the how the pSeries 650 compares to the rp Series of Unix servers - specifically the rp 7405 and 7410 servers, which use 650MHz PA-8700 and 875MHz PA-8700+ chips respectively - from Hewlett Packard Co, mainly because these boxes seem to have about the same performance, chip for chip, as the pSeries 650 and offer similar virtual partitioning capabilities as those IBM offers in the pSeries 650. IBM is claiming a big price/performance advantage based on current HP prices, and that will put pressure on HP to adjust its prices downward in competitive bids. Sun will similarly be under pressure to cut prices on its Sun Fire 3800s to keep pace with the pSeries 650.

One of the reasons why IBM can cut prices to the bone with the pSeries 650 is that the Power4+ chip at the heart of the machine is based on a single chip module implementation of the Power4 processor that has been dramatically shrunk using a new 0.13 micron copper/SOI process. The smaller Power4+ chip uses less voltage, generates less heat, and is about 267 square millimeters in size even though it has a slightly larger shared L2 cache (1.5MB compared to 1.44MB with the Power4). The dual Power cores on the Power4 and Power4+ chips share this L2 cache. The original Power4 was only available as a multichip module (spanning from two to eight processor cores active, but with four to eight cores physically in the MCMs), and each Power4 chip was 414 square millimeters in size, built using a 0.18 micron copper process. The bigger chip had a much lower yield, ran hot, and had a lower clock speed. The Power4+ comes in 1.2GHz and 1.45GHz clock speeds and will probably be available soon at higher speeds in the MCM configurations for the 16-way pSeries 670 and 32-way pSeries 690 servers. The Power4 ran at 1GHz, 1.1GHz, and 1.3GHz.

The pSeries 650 is a rack-mounted server that comes in an 8U form factor. The 1.2GHz Power4+ chips are supported in two, four, and eight processor configurations and the 1.45GHz chips are supported in four, six, and eight processor configurations. The base machine has 2GB of main memory (expandable to 64GB) and two 146.8GB SCSI disk drives (up to four drives are supported in the chassis).

The pSeries 650 has seven integrated PCI slots, and support for up to eight more I/O drawers, each with six PCI slots. We reckon that the machine spans a performance range of between 25,000 TPM to 125,000 TPM, with the former being a two-way 1.2GHz configuration and the latter being an eight-way 1.45GHz configuration.

A base pSeries 650 in an express configuration (these are prepackaged configurations) with two 1.2GHz processors, 4GB of main memory and 294GB of disk has a list price of $40,893 and an express configuration price of $31,495. A top-end pSeries 650 with eight 1.45GHz processors, 16GB of memory, and 294GB of disks lists for $147,293 and has an express configuration price of $129,995.

"We can stand toe-to-toe with the Sun Fire line," says Jim McGaughn, director of eServer Strategy at IBM. He says that, generally speaking, the pSeries 650 is about one-third less expensive than the Sun Fire 3800 and offers a slight price advantage compared to the V880. "We have become a tour de force in the Unix high end - there's no question about the pSeries 690. And with the pSeries 650, we're taking no prisoners in the midrange. We are priced equal to or below Sun's value line."

Customers with the pSeries 660-6M1 eight-way server, which was based on IBM's single-chip S-Star PowerPC processor running at 750MHz, won't see a big performance boost moving to the pSeries 650, with the average jump on commercial applications ranging from 25% to 40%, says McGaughn. The 24-way PowerPC Condor and 32-way Power4 Regatta boxes, as well as their smaller offshoots, have a very different architecture and that is why a 1.45GHz Power4+ processor does not have double the performance of a 750MHz S-Star chip in the respective eight-way machines. I

f IBM hadn't taken an axe to prices, this would be a big problem, and the company would have to spend a lot of money tuning database applications to yield better performance or crank up the clock speed on the Power4+ chips faster than it has. IBM is relying on the combination of a decent performance increase and a decent price cut to get customers to stop paying attention to clock cycle comparisons. Express configurations of the pSeries 660-6M1 are about 20% to 30% more expensive than similar configurations of the pSeries 650, which will offer more oomph. It is unclear if IBM will offering direct upgrades from the pSeries 660 to the pSeries 650, but this seems unlikely given that the machines have very different architectures.

The pSeries 650 runs IBM's AIX-5L version 5.2 operating system, and is expected to support native 64-bit Linux from the commercial distributors in the first quarter of 2003. The machine will be available starting December 6, and it will probably take IBM some time to ramp up production on the Power4+ chips, particularly the faster 1.45GHz chips.

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