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HP, Sun Challenge IBM's Power5

IBM's rivals are taking aim at its new Power5 Unix servers, which Big Blue just launched.

HP and Sun Microsystems claimed the new chip systems would propagate vendor lock-in and lead to a load of compatibility issues.

"At a time when TCO and maximizing return on investments are paramount, IBM continues to push proprietary architectures with limited customer choice," HP said in comments to the press after IBM's announcement. "Linux on Power hasn't demonstrated market acceptance, and IBM has no support at all for Windows on Power. What choices will customers really have if they go with IBM Power5?"

But one analyst familiar with IBM's architecture and plans came to IBM's defense. Illuminata President Jonathan Eunice, who said IBM's move is a compelling one in the Unix space, was quick to point out that supporting Itanium and Windows does not necessarily make one an "open" company.

"HP would prefer customers to choose Itanium, a chip that is supposedly not proprietary because it is manufactured by Intel ," Eunice told internetnews.com. "A chip produced by just one company is proprietary, no matter what company produces it. Indeed, both [Sun's] SPARC and Power are produced by multiple fabricators, and their architectures/designs are in fact more openly available for inspection and license than is Itanium."

The new Power5 systems, scheduled to ship August 31, will include the 2-way p5-520, the 4-way p5-550 and the 16-way p5-570, which will also be released as an Express edition.

Key features include a new modular design for the Power5 machines and "micro-partitioning," which was borrowed from the company's mainframe suite and allows 10 virtual servers to run on one processor.

Ravi Arimilli, IBM Research Fellow and chief architect of eServers, said the features, part of a "disruptive design change" by IBM, are ones that customers asked IBM about because they were not able to get them from rivals HP and Sun.

"With Power5, users can gain a significant amount of performance, which removes the myth that you have to do a brand new architecture to gain more value," Arimilli said at a recent press briefing. "There's been a big push for architecture changes to provide more value for customers."

HP also called into question the "game-changing performance" IBM promised to bring with Power, and questioned some of its benchmarks on the system. For example, in a TPC-C benchmark of the IBM DB2 Universal Database, the 16-way p5-570 server beats a 16-way HP Integrity server by 269 percent and a 64-way machine from HP by 49 percent.

Dimitris Dovas, worldwide product marketing manager of Business Critical Systems at HP, told internetnews.com that IBM's practice of trotting out impressive benchmarks is nothing new and noted that the current high-end p690 UNIX server has a "great TPC-C number, but nothing more than that."

"But when we start to peel the onion, we learn that this is a combination of proprietary stacks and that they tune their architecture to deliver these results," Dovas said. "They always have tricks where they're pulling one or two great numbers but it doesn't address the customer challenge, which is: 'give me real life performance with my everyday application.'"

Dovas also questioned IBM's operating system compatibility, and wondered if AIX applications would have to be rewritten to take advantage of the new Power5 and AIX 5L 5.3, the latest OS driving the Power5 machines.

IBM said in a statement that only minor recompiling would be needed and that "applications move from Power 4 to Power 5 as seamlessly as switching channels with your remote."

Going forward, Dovas said HP will have new server news as the Intel Madison roadmap becomes more fleshed out. HP will release new machines based on Intel's Madison 9M, the 9 megabyte L3 cache version of Intel's Madison IA-64 CPU, slated for a Q3 release.

HP wasn't alone in the competitive joust. Sun Microsystems also questioned Power5's compatibility and coding issues, among other things.

For example, Larry Singer, senior vice president of Worldwide Market Strategies at Sun, cited investment protection as a primary concern among server customers today.

"For 11 straight years, Sun has protected our customers' IT investments by ensuring application compatibility across server generations and upgrades to new technologies," Singer said. "IBM broke compatibility when moving to its Power4 servers, so customers should question IBM's track-record on upgrade compatibility when considering the new Power5-based servers."

Singer is referring to IBM's breaking of 64-bit application compatibility between AIX 4.3.3 and AIX 5L 5.1 upgrade in order to run Power4. But Illuminata's Eunice noted that while IBM's move required application recertification from independent software vendors, Sun's sequence of upgrades on Solaris will too.

Singer also wondered whether customers would have to upgrade to AIX 5L 5.3 to take advantage of new capabilities like multithreading support. IBM expects to have AIX 5L 5.3 for late summer.

Singer told internetnews.com IBM's Power5 news means there is still a lot of room for innovation. The executive said Sun has a three-pronged attack in the chip space, noting that Sun plans to leapfrog past IBM's Power5 with its UltraSparc IVi and IIIi processors, due later this fall.

Later, Singer said the "Niagra" and "Rock" chips will move Sun up in the "massive chip multi-threading" territory in a big way, with eight cores and four threads per core. He also said Sun's APL processor agreement with Fujitsu will help customers handle the load of mainframe migration "going on around the world."

Moreover, Singer said the company already announced virtual servers with N1 Grid Partition for Solaris 10. While IBM's micro-partitioning capabilities help Big Blue to catch up, Singer said Sun also has the ability to run UNIX on Xeon and Opteron processors.

Still, Singer called IBM's Power5 news an "incremental move forward," and allowed that IBM's benchmarks were impressive, particularly because they tested the gamut of SAP, PeopleSoft and Oracle applications and shied away from traditional benchmarks that test the frequency of the processor.

"That is very much more what we think people should be looking at and that's application throughput," Singer said. "We think it's a space that we will dominate with our massive chip multi-threading."