IBM Eyes Unix Future With P5 Servers

By Clint Boulton (Send Email)
Posted Jul 14, 2004


Gearing up to pry more server market share from rivals HP and Sun Microsystems, IBM has unveiled the first servers forged from its POWER5 chip architecture. Big Blue unveiled a new Power5 chip system, positioning itself to try to take the lead in the $21 billion Unix server market.

The machines, which serve as the foundation for an aggressive push to knock Sun and HP out of their Unix leadership positions, run Unix and Linux and scale from two to 16 processors to fill the needs of small- to midsize enterprises.

Like the POWER/POWER4+ before it, the POWER5 systems feature binary compatibility for both 32-bit and 64-bit applications, answering the popular 64-bit extension versions from Intel's Itanium and AMD's Opteron camps.

IBM is expecting the new capabilities in its POWER5 chip to catapult it ahead of the servers based on HP's PA-RISC and Sun's UltraSparc chips.

Chipping away at the Competition

The POWER5 chip consists of 276 million transistors per processor and is developed from IBM's 0.13-micron copper wiring and Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI) technologies.

But while other .13-micron chips from Intel or AMD exist, IBM has added simultaneous multi-threading (SMT) to make one processor operate like two. This allows a POWER5 processor to run two applications at the same time, something products from HP and Sun cannot do. Ultimately, this translates to higher functionality and flexibility at lower cost for customers.

Systems may be set up so that the number of processors can be doubled in the future from 32 with POWER4/POWER4+ systems to 64 with POWER5 machines. IBM did this by placing the cache closer to the processor. Each chip has 38 MB of cache near the two POWER5 processors.

Moreover, engineers at the company have developed a new POWER 5 microprocessor module that packs more computing power into smaller spaces.

Rise of the Machines

Specifically, the p5-520 is a two-way system running a 1.65 gigahertz processor with 32 gigabytes of memory. It runs the new AIX 5L or Linux and starts at $12,920. The p5-550 will scale up to four processors, holding as much as 64GB of memory running the same 1.65 GHz chip. Also running AIX 5L or Linux, its starting price is $22,100.

The p5-570, the most powerful POWER5 machine to date, was designed for the midlevel enterprise customer. It will scale to 16 processors, sports a 1.9 GHz POWER chip, and runs AIX 5L, Linux or i5/OS, the company's next-gen OS/400 operating system. There is also a p5-570 Express model, which runs a 1.5 GHz and has up to 256 GB of memory.

The regular p5-570 starts at $25,928; the Express version with the additional memory begins at $28,659.

Should IBM's schedule go according to planned, company officials said the machines will be available August 31, just in time for the fall sales cycle.

Back to the Future?

Unlike typical next-gen upgrades, the servers offer rarely seen increases in power over the previous generation POWER4 machines, which IBM rolled out in 2001 to stem its losses in Unix market share.

The Armonk, N.Y., systems vendor has made this possible by looking back in order to get to the future, so to speak: through computer utilization features inherited from the company's mainframe line, which debuted some 40 years ago.

These include "micro-partitioning," a capability from the company's Virtualization Engine software that allows users to run as many as 10 virtual machines on one processor.

Micro-partitioning enables users to get more than the average 15 to 20 percent utilization rate typical in Unix server farms, according to Mark Papermaster, vice president of technology development in IBM Systems Group.

While HP was the first to "virtualize" Unix machines, IBM's micro-partitioning is considered by analysts to be far more advanced than what is found in current products from HP or Sun. It separates the physical implementation from the logical, optimizing applications where they run on a CPU and system.

"P5 will take us from this 15 percent utilization rate to over 80 percent," Papermaster said. "This is where it will change the dynamics in the server space. This is a solid two-year advantage which we see versus our competitors."

The technology works with IBM's Capacity on Demand feature, which gives users the ability to trigger policies to automatically meet power requirements caused by traffic spikes.

At first blush, the launch is typical of any IBM server release. But IBM needs the POWER5 to be anything but typical if it wants to overtake the Unix market from its foes.

The Unix Market

IBM admits that, just four years ago, it held a weaker share of the Unix market. At the time, Big Blue garnered a 15 percent share, compared to HP's and Sun's shares of 30 percent each, according to market research firm IDC.

According to Papermaster, the turnaround began in 2001 when IBM released its POWER4 line and began steadily chipping away at its rivals' ownership.

"There was a watershed decision we had to make," Papermaster said. "That decision was: 'Is this a business we're going to win?' Because you don't play unless you're playing to win. It's way too expensive of an investment."

IBM currently holds a 25 percent share, IDC said. It hopes to grow that considerably with the POWER5 line, relying on IDC claims that the Unix market represents a $21 billion opportunity.

Papermaster said that while system upgrades are important for any server vendor, harnessing the added horsepower is key and should help separate IBM from the rest of the pack.

"You need the flexibility for widely varying workload demands -- which we see in Internet, business processing, and payroll -- where you see huge spikes in computing demand. The IT system can't go down. It needs to be completely available. You need attributes that you've already associated with the mainframe, moving down into the Unix space."

POWER chips have become ubiquitous since their launch in 1991, extending to anything from running a consumer's Nintendo games and Apple's G5 computers to its own servers and supercomputers, such as IBM's Blue Gene.

Papermaster said IBM believes the evolution of the POWER architecture will ultimately yield servers that drive a true on-demand business environment for customers.

This article was originally published on internetnews.com.

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