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Chalk IBM's p690 Push Up to Pending POWER5

If it appears that IBM is hungry to push the boundaries of its eServer p690 server, that's because Big Blue is keen to let customers of the POWER4+ architecture know they won't be left behind when the vaunted POWER5 appears this year.

Oh, and they want to take business from HP , too.

The trend may help explain why the company is doing all it can to keep the high-end machine -- which costs anywhere from about $600,000 for an eight-way configuration to $2 million and more for a 32-way machine -- in the public eye.

In the span of a week, the Armonk, N.Y. company has unveiled a new benchmark in which it boasted a 32-way p690 as displaying significant price/performance edge over a 64-way Superdome from HP. It has announced plans to build a supercomputer with 41 p690s at the Research Centre Juelich in Germany.

On Tuesday, IBM unveiled a speedier p690, adding POWER4+ processors that run at 1.9 GHz (previous high was 1.7 percent) and doubling the memory to 1 terabyte. It is offering lower prices for many pSeries and offering Linux distributions with orders of any pSeries POWER4+ system.

Jim McGaughan, marketing director for pSeries servers at IBM, said IBM has launched a news blitz about the big Unix machine for a number of reasons.

McGaughan told internetnews.com IBM needs to ensure customers who have invested a lot of money on p690s they won't be left behind. The POWER5 is coming out this year, but customers who don't opt to buy what is arguably IBM's most significant chip development in years will not be forgotten, he said.

"There is subplot to all of this press and that is that we have been talking a lot about the POWER5 processor as our next-generation chipset," McGaughan said. "Of course the POWER5 will go into our pSeries and iSeries machines. We are using the p690 in our campaign because it is so visible and is a proof point for our 64-bit architecture. We need to show that although we are bringing the POWER5 to market soon, we will continue to offer advancements in POWER4+. We need to sell what's on our plate, and drive demand for POWER4+ even as we move to POWER5 architecture."

McGaughan also said the Intel Developer Forum, where talk of Itanium-based systems was part of the focus of the event last week, played a part in IBM's timing. Leading the way with the Itanium chatter was HP, which has devoted much of its work to the Itanium architecture.

While McGaughan said it's a nice architecture for 64-bit computing, the knock on Itanium from IBM's perspective is that it doesn't scale down to work with 32-bit machines the way POWER4+ does, or Yamhill, Intel's code name for an upcoming set of 64-bit extensions to the 32-bit x86 instruction set expected to debut in Pentiums by 2005.

This is a big reason for the benchmark IBM released last week -- to showcase an advantage over rival HP.

Still, both companies are close in selling Unix systems. According to market research firm IDC, the IBM eServer p690 has shipped 3,498 total units over the last right quarters, while the HP Superdome has shipped 3,136 machines in the same period.

This positioning is typical in a cutthroat industry where IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and Dell snipe at each other in order to make sure their message is clear to customers.

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff chalked the PR blitz up to positioning and said it was important for companies with Unix lines to talk up their servers in the wake of the success of Linux at the low end and the ubiquitous Wintel machines.

"By all indications, [the p690] has been a very successful system for IBM," Haff told internetnews.com "The high end systems are in general where its been IBM's and HP's greatest strength in the Unix market. For HP, Superdome is almost the sweet spot in their Unix line, while IBM seems to be speaking at a bit more strength in their midrange. High-end Unix systems are really the lynchpin of their Unix lines. The low ends, whoever you are, are certainly getting eroded by Linux.

McGaughan did not deny that IBM's news last week was aimed at HP, which just announced plans to roll out ProLiant servers that employ 64-way Opteron chips, which are backwards compatible with 32-way applications.

"We are trying to impress anyone who does business with HP," McGaughan said. "We want to give them pause and ask them where does Itanium fit into their scheme of 32-way and 64-way computing."

"At IDF there was a lot of talk about Itanium as a counterweight to x86 extensions, and lot of talk about Itanium when HP had been quiet," Haff continued.

"IBM is still going to make a big push for POWER on Linux and I think part of the reason for IBM's [p690] push last week is focused around the idea that if you as a customer are hearing a lot about one company and not its competitor, you start to think this is where all the action is. IBM is betting on POWER5 but in the interim they can't stand back and not say anything."

Meanwhile, buzz continues to mount regarding the POWER5 architecture, which McGaughan said will give customers access to virtualization capabilities previously unheard of on Unix and Linux-based systems.

Ahead of the POWER5, IBM is offering lower list prices for many pSeries p650, p670 and p690 configurations, as well as the ability for customers to order SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 8 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS 3 distributions with orders of any pSeries POWER4+ p615, p630, p650, p655, p670 or p690 system.

Previously, this was only offered with new p615, p630 or p650 "express" configurations.