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Big Blue Answers Sun's Fire with Cooler Processors, Prices

Stressing lower prices over number of processors, IBM Thursday took its latest Unix server live Thursday in answer to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s attack on its mainframes with Sun Fire 15K.

As previously reported, the IBM eServer p690, code-named Regatta, runs AIX 5L operating system, a platform geared for 64-bit Linux capability, and is powered by what many call a breakthrough in microprocessor technology -- the so-called "server-on-a-chip" product that features two one-gigahertz-plus processors, a high bandwidth system switch, and a large memory cache.

And speed? IBM claimed the server's architecture allows data to flow between the memory cache and the processor at nearly 125GB per second, or about as much time as it takes to zip 25 DVD movies in a second.

Core among the P4 is its ability to let the server it is installed on save energy without sacrificing performance, but then again IBM has long been touting keeping servers cool. Since 1999, Big Blue has pushed Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI), the uses less energy, processors -- and therefore generates less heat. In addition to conserving energy, something IBM is stressing through its recently-unveiled low-power laboratory in Austin, Texas, the technology adds life to the server.

Regatta features capabilities from its eServer z900 mainframe, including "ultra-dense building blocks," or palm-sized, 8-processor multi-chip modules that are the computing equivalent of six four-inch by sixteen-inch SMP board segments in rival servers. Also back from the z900 are the virtualization abilities; the p690 can be run as a single large server or divided into as many as 16 "virtual" servers, running any combination of the AIX 5L and Linux operating systems.

IBM, in perhaps an unwitting tendency to personify the p690, said its new machine also features "self-healing technologies" that make it possible for the server to continue operating through major failures and system errors. How does this work? Basically, sensors predict when a CPU, cache or memory may fail, and then they take the component offline, while keeping the server running. After this smart diagnosis, system logic capabilities kick in by finding the root cause of problems before they are able to initiate chain reaction failures, preventing them from spreading to the entire system.

p690 customers in the early going include Dupont and Ahold Corp. and for those customers who feel they need more juice, Big Blue will offer Capacity Upgrade on Demand (CUoD) for processors and memory.

And, in what is IBM's primary strategic move against Sun, pricing for the p690 starts at $450,000 for an 8-way 1.1 GHz system with 8 GB memory and 36.4 GB of storage, which will be ready to ship commercially in December 2001. By contrast, Sun Fire 15K lists a base price of $1.4 million dollar, which covers 16 CPUs and 16 GB of memory, but can go as high as $10 million with added options.

Speaking of strategy, it would be quite difficult to steal Sun's thunder, try as anyone might. Market research firm IDC's figures indicate Sun had more than 60 percent of the Unix sever market share last year, and while IBM has gained ground in 2001, the Sun percentage is not going to go away overnight, especially when it is coming up with machines like Sun Fire K.

Laura Conigilaro, analyst at Goldman Sachs called Sun Fire 15K a "technological marvel," and discussed Sun's position in a recent research note.

In noting that this product will set the standard by which the rest of Sun's products are measure, Conigliaro said "Sun has completed the rollout of its next generation server portfolio, providing it with a highly attractive product cycle when the recovery occurs."

The analyst also addressed key differences between Sun Fire 15K's make-up and mainframe technologies.

"High-end Unix systems have always had higher clock performance than the mainframe, but the higher interconnect bandwidth in the mainframe has given the mainframe higher systems performance," Conigilaro wrote. "With the triple crossbar interconnect architecture of the Sun Fire 15K, we think Sun significantly closes the gap between mainframe interconnect technology and those found in open systems."

Still, she noted, migration from mainframe standards to open systems will be gradual because of the substantial application base for mainframes.

Rising to IBM's defense is Giga Information Group, whose David Mastrobattista parsed the two products in a recent research note.

... while we acknowledge the Sun Fire 15K has made notable technology advances beyond the E10000 product, Giga does not believe that the Sun Fire 15K will alter recent customer investment patterns in current mainframe computing technology... Given IBM's recent success with its eServer zSeries product line, we'd venture to say that Sun most certainly has its work cut out in displacing the mainframe," Mastrobattista wrote.

One of the chief reasons? One is the oft-mentioned price scheme IBM is using. Another is a compatibility deficiency in the Sun Fire 15K.

"Unlike the products of IBM's former mainframe competitors, the Sun offering is not a plug-compatible one to eServer zSeries systems," Mastrobattista said. "Changing both the platform and the OS architecture at this level in the computing infrastructure involves a tremendous level of workload analysis, and we strongly recommend that clients challenge Sun on any re-hosting service that implies this approach is straightforward, transparent, and delivers equal or better performance and capacity at better price/performance levels."