IBM launches Power5 Unix line

IBM Corp. on Tuesday will announce the first four Unix servers to be based on the company’s next-generation Power5 microprocessor. The servers, which will range in size from dual-processor to 16-way systems, will begin shipping by Aug. 27, IBM said.

The p5 server line will include the dual-processor p5-520, the 4-way p5-550, and the p5-570, which will support as many as 16 processors. A slimmed-down version of the p5-570, called the p5-570 Express, will support as many as eight processors.

The lower-end p5-520 and p5-550 servers will be available in both tower and 4U (17.8 cm) rack-mount configurations. IBM plans to announce smaller 1U (4.4 cm) and 2U (8.9 cm) p5 systems by September, company executives said. A larger server that will scale to as many as 64 processors will follow later in the year, they said.

The new p5 systems will use the same basic hardware as IBM’s iSeries minicomputers, which were launched in May, and by the first half of 2005, IBM will support the iSeries’ i5/OS as well as Linux and Unix on high-end p5 systems such as the p5-570, IBM said.

The Unix servers are designed for a different type of customer than are the iSeries, which tend to be used by small and medium-sized businesses looking for a turnkey solution, said Adalio Sanchez, general manager of IBM’s eServer pSeries. “The typical pSeries Unix customer wants to buy a la carte,” he said. “They want the ability to pick their own middleware, their own applications and their own database.”

A major design goal for the p5 systems was to integrate mainframe-like technologies that would make them not only faster, but more efficient than other Unix systems in the way they use system resources, said Sanchez.

“The new p5 eServer product line is really about changing the game,” he said. “It’s about having Unix mature as a platform.”

The p5s use a multithreaded and multicore chip design, which means that each of the Power5’s two processor cores can run two tasks at the same time, making the Power 5 appear to the computer’s operating system as though it has four processors.

The 276 million-transistor chips also use IBM’s Virtualization Engine technology to divide each processor core into as many as 10 virtual servers, a feature not available on Power4-based systems. “We put a hypervisor between the processor and the operating system that allows you to do virtualization,” said Sanchez, referring to microcode that IBM has been using in its mainframe systems for years.

IBM hopes that customers such as Steve Kellogg, director of advanced information technologies at The Pennsylvania State University, will be able to use Virtualization Engine to be more efficient in the way they use their Unix systems. Kellogg’s group has about 200 servers operating on IBM’s AIX Unix that run a wide variety of compute services for the University, including Web services, authentication, and a number of specialized applications.

Penn State has only begun its evaluation of beta versions of the p5-520 servers, but the idea of consolidating a larger number of operating system images on a single system is appealing, Kellog said. “I anticipate that we will be able to leverage more of the hardware resources that we have because of this capability,” he said. “We over-provision, and this provides the level of virtualization that will help us not over-provision.”

While IBM has also produced a number of benchmark results purporting to show the p5 systems’ performance advantage over systems from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., the mainframe-like characteristics that IBM has built into the systems are really what sets them apart, said Jonathan Eunice, an industry analyst with Illuminata Inc.

“I don’t see Power5 as a performance play,” he said. “IBM has been very modest in some of the performance things, but virtualization and fault management is where most of the important work has occurred.”

The new systems come at a time when IBM is closing the gap with Sun. During the first quarter of 2003, IBM and HP were neck and neck behind Sun, each holding about 24 per cent of the Unix market, according to Michael McLaughlin, principal analyst with research company Gartner Inc. Sun was on top, with 39 per cent.

A year later, Sun’s share has dropped to 37 per cent, while IBM’s has risen four percentage points to 28 per cent. HP’s share has risen one point to 25 per cent, McLaughlin said.

Four years ago, IBM was caught up in its Linux marketing, but with the erosion of Sun’s dot-com customer base and a series of missteps by the Solaris vendor in bringing products to market, Big Blue sees new opportunities in the Unix space. “Now that Sun has faltered, it makes no sense for IBM to ignore Unix,” he said.

Penn State’s Kellog agreed with this assessment. Four years ago, he said, “The message we got was, ‘We’re just going to do Linux. AIX is dead; the future is Linux.’ ” Since then, however, the product line has been revitalized, he said.

“IBM woke up one day and, much to their surprise, they were being successful,” Kellog said.

The systems will range in starting price from US$12,920 for the p5-520 to US$28,659 for the p5-570 Express. The p5-570 will start at US$25,928, and the p5-550 will start at US$22,100, IBM said.

Processor clock speeds will range from 1.5GHz for the p5-570 Express to 1.9GHz for the p5-570. The systems will ship with either version 5.2 or 5.3 of AIX 5L, or with Linux, IBM said.

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