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Power7 - Big Blue eye on UNIX

Four server preemptive launch

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The scuttlebutt is that IBM seemed perfectly content to wait until May to launch the Power7-based Power Systems servers, but something changed and compelled the company to move up the announcement of its first machines using the eight-core processor to today. Big Blue is not in a habit of explaining its motives or its timing for product launches, but it seems clear that IBM wanted to get out in front of a whole lot of processor and systems launches that are expected between now and the summer.

With so many customers expecting Power7-based machines, it wasn't like IBM was going to have stellar sales of existing Power Systems machines, which run the AIX, Linux, or i/OS operating systems and which are based on the Power6 and Power6+ processors.

The machines announced today are clearly aimed at blunting the attack of midrange X64, Itanium, and Sparc servers as well as some bigger boxes that are going to start creeping up into the power class of the current top-end Power6-based Power 595 machine, which packs 64 cores running at 5 GHz into a single system image. IBM is especially focused on the Unix part of the Power Systems business, where it has generated $1.6bn in revenues in takeouts of Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems boxes in the past three years.

Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide strategy and marketing for the Power Systems division at IBM, says that Sun and HP are each bringing in about $4bn a year in Unix systems sales, with Big Blue getting the lion's share of what is left over of the $14bn Unix market.

"We have 40 per cent share, but this is still a tremendous opportunity here," says Handy. "We are taking Unix to a new level." And by Unix, IBM apparently means both AIX and i/OS, which share the scalability, reliability, and energy-efficiency attributes of a system designed to support mission-critical workloads.

"We want to position Power as the future of Unix. HP and Sun haven't caught up to Power6, and we will trounce them with Power7. The best marketing executive in the world cannot position Tukwila against Nehalem-EX, which does not support HP-UX," Handy says with a laugh, talking about the four-core Itanium chip that Intel will announce today and the eight-core Xeon chip due sometime in the first half of this year. "HP-UX customers are going to be just as distraught in 2010 as Sun customers were in 2009."

Neither HP nor Oracle, the new owner of the Sun Solaris server business, seem to think there is as much blood in the water as Big Blue thinks it smells. But clearly there is going to be some fierce competition in the server racket this year, particularly with so many projects delayed since the summer of 2008, leaving servers in need of capacity upgrades, and budgets under continuing pressure.

The blood may have more to do with red ink associated with steep discounting than technical superiority when all is said and done in 2010. Which would make it look a lot like 2002 and 2003 - truly awful years for Sun, so-so for the then-merged HP/Compaq, and great ones for IBM's Unix biz.

Contrary to the rumors from last week, IBM did not launch the Power7 line with a kicker to the current Power 520 entry server. (More than a few readers told me this in private; perhaps they all heard the same wrong information). What IBM is rolling out today are four machines in the midrange and enterprise class, which leave entry and blade servers as well as big iron boxes to come out later in 2010.

Handy would not be specific about exactly what these machines would look like, but after some arm twisting he said that customers with current Power 520s (presumably using Power6 and Power6+ chips) will have an upgrade path to the future Power7-based entry machines (presumably to be called the Power 720 to be consistent with the names chosen for the four machines launched today).

Handy also confirmed that the kicker to the high-end Power 595 would have the same 32 sockets, presumably to be called the Power 795, and added that it would cram 256 cores into the same thermal envelope that a Power6-based machine with 64 cores had.

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