IBM, Intel, HP Ramping Up Competition in Unix Space

OEMs and chip makers are aggressively pushing into the high-end Unix space, a profitable but shrinking area of the server market. Analysts say IBM with its new Power7 systems has the inside track to expand its market share, though Hewlett-Packard and Intel are coming out with systems based on new Itanium chips. Oracle, with Sun's hardware business in hand, also is looking to make a play in a market affected by x86 chips from Intel and AMD.

Server OEMs and chip makers are turning a spotlight on the high end of the systems market, ramping up the rhetoric for their competition in the highly profitable but shrinking Unix space.

IBM made its move Dec. 8, with the rollout of its first powerful Power7 systems, which promise chip- and system-level features that greatly improve performance, energy efficiency and virtualization capability over current servers running on Power6. At about the same time, Intel and Hewlett-Packard introduced the long-awaited 9300 series next-generation Itanium processor, once code-named Tukwila, with a road map showing plans for several more generations.

In addition, at the ISSCC (International Solid-State Circuits Conference), the newly combined Oracle/Sun Microsystems showed off its SPARC T3, also known as "Rainbow Falls." The 16-core chip-with eight threads per core-doubles the core count of the previous SPARC T2, and officials say it is an indication of Oracle's dedication to Sun's SPARC and Solaris hardware business.

All are vying for business in a Unix space that, while in still in demand, is seeing its share of the overall global server market shrink.

According to research company IDC, the Unix market accounted for 26.9 percent of server spending worldwide in the third quarter of 2009-or about $2.8 billion. However, in the first quarter that market percentage was about 33 percent. So, while not in free fall, the Unix market is sinking.

"There's still a lot of money in big Unix systems, and even in smaller Unix systems," Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, said in an interview. "Microsoft will argue that you can do almost anything in Windows that you want to do. But a lot of IT administrators would probably argue that."

The vendors agree. Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy for IBM's Power systems platform, called the $14 billion Unix market "robust," adding that businesses are looking for ways to get greater scalability, reliability and efficiency from these systems while reducing their capital and operational costs. Martin Fink, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Business Critical Systems unit, similarly said businesses are looking for more performance, scalability and energy efficiency from these larger systems as they look to consolidate workloads.

One trend that has come out of the recent announcements-including Oracle's 5-hour marathon the day it closed the $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun-is that OEMs are no longer focusing on the speeds and feeds of their new processors. Instead, the chips become a key part of a larger server rollout.

"There is a fundamental shift away from the processor only and [toward] more how they fit within the system ecosystem," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in an interview. "Power7 generates a lot of innovation, but it's only a part of the [overall server] innovation."

With its Power7 systems, IBM officials spoke not only about the performance increases in the chip, but also about overall enhancements to the systems-from virtualization capabilities to energy efficiency to software upgrades that support the new servers-and how the new systems support IBM's larger Smarter Planet Initiative.

Oracle officials talked about the Sun SPARC/Solaris servers as a foundation for high-end integrated hardware and software offerings, while both HP's Fink and Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the Intel Architecture Group and general manager of its Data Center Group, touted the capabilities of the new Itanium chip when combined with HP systems.

All these feature enhancements-reliability, scalability, performance, energy efficiency and virtualization-are key to Unix customers looking for homes for their mission-critical business applications.