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NEC and Unisys Tag Team on Monster Xeon Server

Two heads, 96 Xeon cores are better than Itanium

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NEC is shipping the Express5800/A1160 to early adopters beginning in October, with general availability in November. A base single-node machine with four of the four-core Dunnington E7440 Xeon chips (running at 2.4 GHz and with 12 MB of cache) and with 8 GB of main memory costs $28,849, while the same box with four 2.66 GHz six-core Xeon X7460 chips (which have 16 MB of cache each) and 16 GB of main memory in the box costs $36,399.

Unisys is unveiling its variant of the Monster Xeon server at the VMworld trade show in Las Vegas this week, and is branding the box the ES7000 Model 7600R. The feeds and speeds are essentially the same between the two partners, with some differences in packaging and with Unisys offering an external PCI-Express chassis that adds another eight peripheral slots per server node, for a total of 56 slots on a fully loaded box. Pricing on the ES7000 Model 7600R ranged from $26,340 to $135,000.

NEC is manufacturing the MX chipset and making the Monster Xeon servers for both its own sales and for those of Unisys, which is just rebadging the boxes as well as contributing engineering resources. Both NEC and Unisys are supporting Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 on the boxes, as well as Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 SP2 and Red Hat's Enterprise Linux Advanced Platform 5.2. Microsoft's Hyper-V and VMware's ESX Server 3.5 virtual machine hypervisors are also certified on the boxes.

The Monster Xeon Server, NEC and Unisys hope, will give them more traction at the high-end of the server space, which is seeing a bit of a resurgence thanks to virtualization-driven server consolidation. Also they are aiming for broader appeal than the Itanium-based machines that NEC and Unisys have developed on their own to chase mainframes and Unix iron with big Wintel and Lintel iron.

Pseudo-legacy corner

While the Itanium-based machines in the NEC Express5800 and Unisys ES7000 line are well-regarded, Intel's Xeon processors are the undisputed volume champs in the server arena. It is a lot easier to peddle a big 64-bit Xeon box that is virtualization-friendly to a company that has a slew of Xeon machines than it is to convince them to move to a big iron Itanium box. And any customer looking to get off legacy mainframe or minicomputer iron or thinking of ditching RISC/Unix iron is very unlikely to happily paint themselves into another pseudo-legacy corner with Itanium iron--no matter how well engineered it is.

If great engineering were enough to guarantee a healthy market for a system, then neither NEC nor Unisys would have had to partner to bring a high-end X64 server to market. But, as the long history of shows at Unisys, a venerable mainframe maker and an early adopter of Windows in the enterprise on its X86-based and then Itanium-based ES7000 iron, there's more to servers than engineering. You have to make the products you design profitably, and you have to sell them in sufficient volume to make a business of it. And, you have to time your product right for the software stack.

In late 1999, Unisys was ready with expandable 16-core iron to run enterprise-class Windows workloads and was readying 32-core machines, but unfortunately for the company, Microsoft was not really ready to deliver that Windows platform until early 2000, and it wasn't really ready for primetime on big iron with Datacenter Edition for another year or so. This kind of timing puts a spanner in the marketing works, to be sure, and so did Unisys' stubborn determination to ignore the rise of Linux in the data center until a few years ago.

There are lots of reasons why in the past year, Unisys has backed off from engineering servers with the exception of its ClearPath mainframes and its co-development work with NEC on the Monster Xeon box. Unisys resells servers made by Sun (the X4600 midrange Opteron box) and Dell (rack and blade servers) in its current ES7000 product line as well as its own vintage boxes. Why Unisys isn't just reselling the entire NEC X64 line is a bit of a mystery, and if Unisys was more profitable three years ago, it would have just made sense for NEC to have bought the company in July 2005 instead of partnering with it.

The upshot is that by partnering, NEC and Unisys have a scalable and presumably less costly Windows box with which to chase data center business. SQL Server and Exchange Server are the two obvious targets, and you can bet that NEC and Unisys are going to be running into each other as they sell.

"This is a large enough market for both of us to exist," says Michael Nixon, an ex-HPer who just joined NEC as director of marketing for the Enterprise Server Division to try to test that theory.

If HP were not so married to Itanium and its Integrity line, it might see that the NEC and Unisys box, as well as IBM's "Hurricane" machines, were a plausible threat to those Itanium machines. Who knows? If the Monster Xeons start selling, NEC might find HP knocking on its door to partner. Stranger things have happened. ®

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