Unix server vendors up the market ante

When technology companies resumed normal operations in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the rejuvenated high-end Unix server space quickly took centre stage.

The flurry of vendor activity kicked-off when Sun Microsystems Inc., the dominant player in the Unix space, unveiled the Sun Fire 15k. Expected to play in the same space as Sun’s E10000, the Sun Fire 15k, features 106 processors, 576 GB of memory, 18 I/O hubs and, according to Sun, 300 per cent more throughput than any competitive system.

Gordon Sissons, vice-president of technology at Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., said although Canadian purchases of the Sun Fire 15k are still imminent, he expects sales will eventually outstrip that of its E10000 predecessor.

“It (E10000) didn’t address a lot of the cost issues of moving applications to high-end platforms,” he said, referring to Sun’s revamped mainframe-rehosting capabilities announced with Sun Fire 15k.

The Sun announcement came only days before the release of IBM Corp.’s p690, code-named Regatta, which features IBM’s new Power 4 processor, which Big Blue says significantly outperforms competitive chips, and the ability to partition 16 ways.

In the interim, officials from Hewlett-Packard Co., released its midrange HP Server rp8400, but also offered a 10 per cent rebate offer to any customer willing to trade-in their high-end Sun or IBM servers for its high-end Superdome offering, released last year.

IBM is banking on Regatta to boost its current high-end Unix market share, said Don Young, an industry analyst at UBS Warburg LLc, in New York. Sun, on the other hand, is the top Unix vendor in the world. Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer Corp., once formidable Unix players, are leaving the Unix playing field as they port their Unix customers over to Intel’s Windows-based Itanium chip family, he added.

However, Young believes “IBM’s near-term outlook is world class and reflects the work of mainframe engineering talent that is moving IBM’s Unix technology far ahead of the competition,” he said.

“We expect to see top-ranking TPC [Transaction Processing Performance] benchmarks [from Regatta],” said Young, who added that Sun has been reluctant to use TPC benchmarks for Sun Fire 15k as Sun officials claim they are “not real-world measurements.”

As to how eager companies will be to buy equipment with several million-dollar price tags in a time of economic turmoil and IT budget cuts, Sissons said he remains optimistic. “We think the market is (going) to rebound . . . and be very healthy.”

Buying two or three high-end Unix servers to replace dozens or even hundreds of midrange boxes is the sales pitch vendors are sending to potential customers. In tough economic times, the emphasis is not on the up-front costs, but on the possibility of long-terms savings.

That view was echoed by Lorne Weiner, marketing manager for Unix server solutions at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. “CxOs want to see quicker time to revenue, and quicker time to ROI,” he said. With one big server able to handle multiple workloads and quickly shift resources according to business unit requirements, companies can save money, Weiner added.

“It can be accomplished by one server, a big box . . . it’s a good way to keep your finger on the costs associated with this.”

Steve Campbell, Sun’s senior director of enterprise systems marketing for computer systems, said offering customers a server of Sun Fire 15k’s magnitude will organizations consolidate their server load.

Although the current economic climate makes selling a US$10 million server a challenge, he said the opportunity to reign in costs over the long term makes it a wise investment. “People who jump on it today can use it as a competitive advantage when the market rebounds,” Campbell said. “This is a hot topic.”

TransCanada Pipelines, with help from Sun, completed its server consolidation project last month. When the company merged with Nova in 1999, it was left with hundreds of midrange servers running a mix of, Digital, VAX, IBM RS6000 and Solaris-based systems

Martin Stone, manager of technical infrastructure innovation at TCPL in Calgary, described the situation as “anarchy. You get a bunch of questions from people asking, ‘What standards so I follow,” he said. “No one knows your baseline.”

TCPL ultimately standardized on Solaris 7.0 across 4 E10000 (they’re currently studying the Sun Fire 15k), 18 Sun StorEdge T3 arrays and Oracle 8I and Sybase databases. According to the company, the project will reduce hardware and software costs by 23 per cent, save it $4 million a year in operating costs, and boost its overall IS performance.

– with files from IDG News Service