IBM gives Unix servers a Power5 injection

Sun and HP under the gun

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IBM's already strong Unix server line just got stronger today with the announcement of a new line of Power5 processor-based systems.

By the end of August, IBM will deliver three new Power5 servers that stretch from the low-end to midrange. The p5 520 will ship with two processors and be followed by the four-processor p5 550 and 16-processor p5 570. Starting prices for the systems range from $12,920 for the 520 up to $25,928 for the 570. IBM will roll out higher-end systems over the course of this year, including a big daddy 64-processor box.

There are few surprises with IBM's new kit. Like its Power4 predecessor, the Power5 chip contains two processor cores. But unlike Power4, the Power5 part also has Simultaneous Multithreading (SMT) that makes a single processor appear as multiple processors to the operating system. IBM currently has versions of the Power5 chip ranging in speed from 1.65GHz on up to 1.9GHz.

Faster, better IBM kit is not exactly what Sun Microsystems or HP needs to see right now. In 2003, IBM surged to take the Unix server revenue lead. Analysts and customers pointed to the strength of Power4 over UltraSPARC III and PA-RISC/Itanium as a major reason for IBM's success. Sun, however, is also going through an upgrade at the moment, as customers move to UltraSPARC IV. HP will offer a new version of Itanium - code-named Montecito - next year.

With the release of its new Power5 gear, IBM will have more benefits on its side. The new systems share an underlying architecture with the Power5-based iSeries systems released earlier this year.

"Whether badged as the eServer i5 to indicate that the server goes out the door with i5/OS - as the OS/400 operating environment is now more modishly called - or the more AIX- and Linux-centric eServer p5, the underlying hardware is the same," writes Gordon Haff of Illuminata in a research note. "This sameness has clear cost benefits for i5/OS users. They now get to run their favorite operating system atop hardware whose pricing is set by a hyper-competitive Unix marketplace, rather than their own more insular environment. IBM had been making iSeries price cuts, especially in disk and memory, anyway - but this merger of platforms doubtless cuts its own costs and forces it to accelerate the process."

Haff calls the distinctions between the pSeries and iSeries boxes "arbitrary," saying IBM will likely merge these products into a single line down the road.

With the new pSeries gear, IBM is also offering "micro-partitions," which allow customers to run up to 10 partitions on a single chip. This is a nice improvement over Power4 kit that required at least one chip per partition. This is a somewhat similar strategy to what Sun has done in Solaris 10 with Grid Containers. Sun can run an unlimited number of containers on a single instance of the operating system.

Along with partitions, IBM is offering up a host of virtualization technologies such as virtual I/O and shared Ethernet adapters for letting partitions share the same components and a Hardware Management Console that makes it possible to set up a single management policy for groups of partitions.

Many of these features require Version 5.3 of IBM's AIX operating system, which is the middle of being rolled out. IBM also offers Version 5.2 and various flavors of Linux.

In total, IBM's new gear stacks up well, especially from an expandability standpoint, according to Haff.

"Indeed, even the one- to two-way p5-520 system offers expandability and other features that considerably surpass a basic dual-processor x86 server," he writes. "Consider that it can be configured with up to 32 GB of memory, has integrated dual Ultra 320 SCSI and Gigabit Ethernet controllers, includes redundant cooling and (optionally) power, and supports up to four Remote I/O Drawers (RIO2) in addition to six internal Hot Plug PCI-X slots. "

After falling well behind Sun in the Unix race, IBM has become rather methodical about its attack on the market. There was a great rush and some panic getting Power4 out the door. But now it's Power5, Power5+ next year and Power6 after that. IBM's systems perform well on benchmarks, have a lot of mainframe class technology built-in and are gaining share. Not much else you could ask for. Well, maybe for Global Services to go home, but that's not going to happen. ®

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