IBM set to sail Regatta

IBM Corp.’s long-awaited p690 high-end Unix server, formerly code-named Regatta, is now on sale, the company said Thursday. The system should help IBM catch up with competitor Sun Microsystems Inc., according to industry analysts.

The p690 supports up to 32 Power4 processors running at either 1.1GHz or 1.3GHz, according to Rod Adkins, general manager for IBM’s Unix business. It will start shipping in volume by December, he said.

Over the past three years, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun has managed to take the lion’s share of the market for servers running the Unix operating system, the analysts said. Sun has benefitted by putting mainframe-style features such as partitioning into its servers, and building hardware for its own Solaris operating system. While Sun managed to take a lead with Unix systems, analysts are saying IBM’s new p690 servers will give the company some heavy competition and create a more competitive environment that could benefit users.

“Now Sun has some serious competition in IBM,” said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. “Some of the features IBM has are pretty sweet, and they are making Sun work for their money. From a customer point of view, it is exactly what you want.”

IBM has brought some of its mainframe expertise down to the p690, Eunice said, rivaling some technologies supported by Sun for several years and giving the end users more management and stability features on a mid-range server. Users should see mid-range systems do more work for less money, he said.

IBM said it has boosted its partitioning tools for the p690, making it possible for users to create 16 virtual partitions. A single partition can be created using one processor, 1GB of memory and one PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) adapter, Adkins said. Users can run either AIX 5L or Linux.

Sun still maintains some advantages over IBM with its partitioning technology The company supports up to 18 dynamic system domains on the Sun Fire 15K, allowing users to change a partition’s properties on the fly.

IBM will not support dynamic partitions until the next update to AIX next year, Adkins said.

However, the p690’s pricing compares favorably with that of Sun’s systems, Adkins said. A p690 system with eight 1.1 GHz processors, 8GB of memory and 36.4GB of storage will start at US$450,000. A more powerful model with 16 processors and 16GB of memory will start at US$760,000, as compared to a Sun Star Fire 15K in a similar configuration for US$1.4 million, he said.

While the ability to make more changes without shutting a server down is a plus, Sun requires users to allocate four processors per domain, making IBM’s technology, which requires less system resources, more flexible, Illuminata’s Eunice said.

IBM has also built in a network of both hardware and software sensors into the p690 servers to help them detect problems in things such as the memory cache or processors and automatically shut down the problem area before it affects the whole server.

“If there is a likely failure, it automatically takes that component offline and keeps the rest of the machine running,” Adkins said.

IBM has been planning the p690 system for several years, and analysts appear optimistic that the company has made a strong move to bolster a lagging Unix line.

“(The p690) brings in partitioning capabilities which they did not have and which HP and Sun were already bringing to their mid-range systems,” said Gordon Haff, research director of high-end architectures at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. “It gives IBM a competitive product that they very much need.”

One user agreed with analysts that the new system appears impressive but said he still needs to put the p690 through some tests before running any of his company’s core applications on the server.

“Before we bet the farm on expanding our Regatta environment, we need to make sure we can see what is actually going on with applications running on the system,” said Joe Giacometti, senior vice-president of information technology at food services provider Royal Ahold.

The company will purchase an 8-way p690 and plans to roll out its first application on the server by the first quarter of next year, Giacometti said.

IBM Canada, in Markham, Ont., is at

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