Midrange server battle benefits users

The ferocious rivalry between Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. continues to yield big benefits for users.

Last week, both vendors introduced Unix servers bristling with high-end features but bearing midrange price tags.

IBM’s p670 is a smaller clone of the company’s high-end p690 server. With support for up to 16 processors and 128GB of memory, the new server is roughly half the size of the p690. But the p670 includes all the features available in the premium product, such as virtual partitioning and self-repair capabilities. At US$175,000, IBM’s new servers start at less than half the price of an entry-level p690.

Sun’s new Sun Fire 12K product borrows heavily from its flagship Sun Fire 15K product, which it introduced last year. The server, which starts at about $500,000, supports up to 52 processors, nine partitions and 288GB of memory and comes with the same high-availability and reliability features found on the 15K.

Sun also dropped prices by as much as 41 per cent across its entire line of UltraSPARC III-based servers.

The product announcements and pricing moves are as much about generating new sales in a tight economy as they are about the fierce battle for market share between the two vendors, said Richard Partridge, an analyst at Port Chester, N.Y.-based D.H. Brown Associates Inc.

During the past year in particular, IBM has been aggressively challenging Sun’s Unix market domination. In overall annual sales, Sun still handily leads IBM in every single Unix market in which both companies compete, according to the latest market figures from IDC in Framingham, Mass.

But IBM is catching up. For instance, in the fourth quarter of last year, IBM for the first time in several years overtook Sun in Unix server revenue, said Jean Bozman, an IDC analyst.

“IBM and Sun are clearly at each other’s throats and are trying to win share from each other,” Partridge said.

“I think it’s fairly clear that the vendors are hungry for business and are interested in working with us to create a flexible relationship,” agreed David Rymal, director of technology at Everett, Wash.-based Providence Health System.

The hospital group, which uses servers from both Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM, is currently planning to purchase IBM’s new p670 system to augment the two p690s it has already installed to run an enterprise resource planning application. What makes the p670 appealing is its high-end functionality and processors at a midrange price, Rymal said.

On the other hand, The Weather Channel Enterprises Inc. in Atlanta is considering Sun’s new 12K server because it offers significantly greater scalability than the current Sun 6800 server, at a reasonable price, said Bill Watson, manager of systems administration at the Weather Channel.

“Going directly to the 15K [from Sun’s 6800 server] is a leap for a lot of customers,” he said. “The 12K gives you a sort of entry point to get there.”

Watch manufacturer Fossil Inc. in Richardson, Texas, which uses other IBM products, is considering IBM’s p670 server because it comes packed with features that have already been proved in the high-end space, said CIO Ed Jurica. But a final decision hasn’t yet been made, he said.

“We haven’t finished our conversation yet,” Jurica said. “Everyone is being aggressively competitive.”

Not to be left behind, Compaq Computer Corp. last week released to select customers some preview models of new Alpha servers based on the forthcoming Alpha EV7 processor technology. The first systems, which will support up to eight processors, will be available by year’s end, and larger systems capable of scaling up to 64 processors are due out next year.