IBM Servers to Pair Linux, New PowerPC Chips

Sources said Big Blue will challenge Sun and HP with blade and rack servers that tap the PowerPC 970-and its successor.

In a quest for a bigger piece of the entry-level server market, IBM Corp. has drawn up a three-year plan for producing and marketing systems that pair Linux and IBMs own 64-bit PowerPC family of processors, sources report.

According to sources, the Armonk, N.Y., company plans to take on Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. with Linux servers priced at the "enterprise entry level," which IBM defines as less than $25,000. Although the current share of Linux servers running on Power processors is marginal, IBM reportedly projects nearly a 20-fold increase—to almost half-a-million units—by 2006.

In pursuit of this goal, IBM is poised to introduce two tiers of products: a low-end blade server and an "ultra -low-end" (ULE) rack/deskside model. The initial blade server will be based on the Power PC 970 processor (known internally as the GPUL), which made its debut this month in Apple Computer Inc.s Power Mac G5 line. A mid-2004 replacement for the blade as well as the ULE products will run on an updated version of that chip, known as the GPUL2.

Although it is derived from the Power4 family, the PowerPC 970 is designed to be more compact and cooler and require less power, making it a better fit for desktops and blades than the bulky, hot Power4. The PowerPC 970, which is comparable in size to Intels Celeron, is built using a smaller lithography process than the Power4.

It also adds vector multimedia extension (VMX) support, which makes it compatible with applications that tap the Velocity Engine in Motorola Inc.s PowerPC G4—a significant factor in its role as the new Power Mac chip.

Few if any server-specific pieces of software take advantage of the VMX capability, which Motorola refers to as AltiVec. However, Chuck Bryan, IBM director of pSeries Linux Marketing, said that advanced life-sciences software could, with proper recompiling, see a performance advantage from the capability.

The ULE models, which will run Linux and IBMs AIX OS, will ship in 2U two-way and 4U four-way configurations. A base configuration of the 4U is expected to cost less than $3,500, sources said.

IBMs marketing scheme hinges on boosting awareness of and demand for Linux servers via the companys pSeries, which currently uses IBMs 64-bit Power4 and Power4+ processors, from which the PowerPC 970 was derived.

Sources report that IBM internal documents portray Sun and HP as the main targets of the new server effort; these companies offer only Intel-based Linux servers. With the upcoming PowerPC 970- and GPUL2-based ULE products, IBM will stress better performance than Xeon-based servers, 32- and 64-bit compatibility with no migration costs or penalties, and linear price scaling from two-way to four-way systems. Against Itanium and Itanium 2 servers, IBM will promote the ULE as cheaper, less power-hungry, cooler and easier to set up.

Recognizing that the Linux market is a commodity one, IBM plans to market the new systems on strengths that have driven PC sales, such as value and life span. This effort will entail a revised business model, sources said, that focuses on better inventory turnover and management, improved efficiency in channels, and perhaps more direct-channel sales.

Helping promote the enterprise-level server market are recent releases of Linux versions of DB2 database and IBMs own WebSphere e-business software. IBMs plans also include strategies for encouraging ISVs to work with the platform. Starting with "technical enablement" this year, IBM will push for increased ISV recruitment and investment starting in 2004, along with releasing developer tools.

IBM representatives declined to comment on the reports.