IBM Poised for System p Push

With Power6, an updated AIX OS and more virtualization capabilities, IBM is looking to entice HP and Sun Unix users.

IBM is ready to start making noise with its System p servers.

In a year that saw its much-touted Power6 processor come to market, as well as two systems—the System p570 and the System i570—to support the new chip, IBM has remained low-key about these new offerings. That is about to change as it begins an aggressive campaign to tout its System p servers as the one set of systems powerful enough to handle customers' Unix-based applications.

To achieve these goals, IBM plans on talking up the virtualization capabilities of the Power6 processor and its updated AIX 6 operating system and what these developments bring to System p. The Armonk, N.Y., company will also push System p as a way to consolidate mission-critical applications from x86 servers to its Unix-based systems.

While IDC found that the Unix market continues to shrink—Unix server revenues declined in the second quarter compared with 2006—IBM officials believe the best way to gain market share—and profits—is to target the two other main Unix vendors: Sun Microsystems, with its SPARC-based systems, and Hewlett-Packard, with its line of servers powered by Intel's Itanium chips. IBM already has programs in place that allow Sun and HP customers to migrate to System p, and officials believe the price and technological capabilities of System p will help accelerate that initiative.

IBM has chosen to talk up System p at a time when its hardware business took a tumble in the third quarter. That part of the company saw a 10 percent drop in sales compared with 2006, and although hardware accounted for $4.9 billion in revenue, it was less than what most analysts had expected. One of the bright spots in IBM's recent financial report was its System p sales, which increased about 6 percent from 2006.


As 2007 ends, Scott Handy, vice president for worldwide marketing and strategy for IBM's Power systems, said the company plans to roll out other System p servers that support Power6. The general release of AIX should also be hitting the market soon. The company is also working on a beta program that will allow Linux binaries to run on Power system with reconfiguration to help move more customers off of HP and Sun systems.

While the market might be flat, Handy said IBM can offer enough options to entice Sun and HP customers to switch to System p.

"We want customers to move to us, and by offering what we offer and through features like virtualization and the money savings we can offer, it becomes a win-win situation for both us and our customers," he said.

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Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said IBM's plan to promote System p is similar to how it began promoting its BladeCenter servers and its System z mainframes—slow at first and then building momentum.

"IBM spent a great deal of time talking about System z for consolidation and its virtualization capabilities, but they have not been making that much noise in regards to Power6 and the virtualization capabilities that come with it," King said. "I think for IBM, it's about picking their spots and trying not to confuse the market. They will start beating the drum for System p, but there has not been as much as had been expected."

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Handy said that in addition to promoting the ability to consolidate and virtualize workloads with System p, the company will try to build to its customer base by reaching out to SMBs (small and midsize businesses), emerging markets like China, and those markets IBM considers underserved, such as Germany, Japan and Italy.

Still, virtualization remains a key feature.

While VMware has grabbed most of the attention as the prime provider of x86 virtualization software, IBM officials say they can provide those same services within a Unix system. On the hardware side, there is feature called Live Partition Mobility, which uses Power6 and capabilities built into the firmware that allow users to move an operating system and application live from one Unix system to another without interruption. Another tool, Live Application Mobility, is a beta program within the new update to AIX that enables applications to shift from one physical machine or virtual partition to another regardless of what Power processor is in use.

"We now see up to two thirds of our customers adopting virtualization, which is significant when everyone talks about VMware having either 4 or 6 percent penetration of the x86 servers out there," Handy said.


Ryan Crump, a senior systems support specialist with Amway, the giant direct sales and marketing company based in Ada, Mich., has been using Power-based System p servers with Power 5 and Power5+ processors to run both Oracle database applications and JD Edwards ERP (enterprise resource planning) workloads. Crump told eWEEK that his company needs a robust system to support these applications in order to ensure that Amway's Web site, product tracking system and other customer-facing interfaces continue uninterrupted. Part of that comes from the performance of the Power processor and the ability to virtualize a Unix system.

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"Now, we are looking to upgrade our servers [to Power6] since those systems will now have the enhanced portioning capabilities that we need and the ability to virtualize parts of the system like the adopters," said Crump, who has been with Amway for 16 years. "Power5 has been great and we can't wait to get our hands on Power6. We've sat through some of IBM's technical briefings and performance increase is the type of CPU horsepower that we need."

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