New IBM server targets Sun in midrange Unix market

IBM Corp. announced Monday a new eight-processor server that it believes combines low cost with many of the high-end functions found in larger systems.

The new p650 will arrive in December with IBM’s latest Power4 processors and all of the freshest software features that have been added into its AIX operating system. With its best technology built into a system that starts under US$30,000, IBM is ready to heat up the competition against midrange leader Sun Microsystems Inc., said Karl Freund, vice-president of pSeries server product management at IBM.

“Some of our competitors have done well by providing a good enough Unix server,” Freund said. “We think this is the end of good enough servers.”

IBM admits that Sun has enjoyed “great success” by selling a line of low-cost midrange servers that do not have all the features of some other more expensive midrange servers available from Sun. With this in mind, IBM will roll out the p650 at a price similar to servers from Sun but with some of the software tools its rival does not offer.

The p650 will ship as an 8U (14 inches) high rack-mount server equipped with Power4+ processors. The Power4+ chips are the first Power4 chips from IBM built with a 0.13-micron fabrication process, which has helped IBM lower the power consumption and boost the performance of the chips. The new chips will be available at 1.2GHz and 1.45GHz, Freund said.

Like its higher end p690 server, IBM’s new system will also support dynamic partitions that can run either AIX or Linux. This allows customers to run a number of applications on the same server, providing an option for server consolidation.

Freund claims that dynamic partitions, which make it possible to adjust processor power and memory resources between partitions, give an example of IBM’s ability to provide a feature that Sun cannot match on this class of server. Sun was one of the first Unix vendors to roll out dynamic partitions but only provides the technology on its more expensive Sun Fire midrange server line.

Sun, however, contends that it has built two midrange Unix server lines for a reason. Its Sun Fire servers cater to those users that need cutting-edge technology but that also want investment protection. The Sun Fire servers allow users to rip out old processors and replace them with the latest, fastest chips Sun has to offer, said Pertti Manner, director of product marketing at Sun. In addition, users can upgrade many of the components in Sun’s higher end servers without shutting the system down and use processors that run at different speeds in their systems.

“This is an accomplishment you will not see from other vendors any time soon,” Manner said.

High-end features aside, one IBM user has picked the new p650 for the horsepower of the Power4+ processors.

“We’re a retailer and coming into our busy season of the year,” said Ken Boyd, director of MIS technical services at Goody’s Family Clothing Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn. “We churn through tons and tons of data, and the data set is growing faster than we can archive off. So, I need to throw power at the problem.”

Goody’s has a number of legacy applications running on its Unix systems and found that all of the software had already been certified to run on the latest version of AIX, which was another plus, Boyd said.

The company has ordered an eight-processor production p650 and a four-processor system for development. Boyd has looked at the partitioning technology available on the p650 but won’t use it for some time, if at all, he said.

IBM will sell the p650 with two, four and eight processors. A system with two 1.2GHz chips, 4GB of memory and two 148GB disks will start at US$31,495. A larger p650 with eight 1.45GHz processors, 16GB of memory and two 148GB disks will start at US$129,995.

IBM’s Power4 chips put two processor cores on one piece of silicon, so an eight-processor server contains four dual-core chips.