After months of quiet promotion, IBM today launched its Regatta-based server, a machine it believes will bolster its years-long effort to steal market share from Sun Microsystems in the lucrative Unix server market.
The new server, the p690 eServer, is based on IBMs newest chip, code named Regatta. The Power4 microprocessor is based on copper rather aluminum, has a high-bandwidth internal system switch and is the first to have two processors - both running at more than 1 gigahertz - on the same chip. IBM said the design will mean dramatic improvements in performance and reliability, while lowering overall electricity usage.
The Power4 chip lies at the heart of IBMs effort to redesign its big servers so they can run a variety of operating systems. The servers can also be partitioned to run different applications simultaneously with different software.
The p690 eServer is "delivering groundbreaking technologies never before seen in Unix systems. There is nothing in todays Unix marketplace - and on the horizon - that begins to match its performance, reliability and flexibility to consolidate diverse workloads," said Rod Adkins, general manager of IBMs eServers pSeries line of servers.
IBM said the new machine will be cheaper than Suns newest Unix server, the Sun Fire 15K, which was introduced last week. The Sun Fire 15K is a 16- to 106-processor server that can be partitioned into 18 submachines. IBMs p690 eServer depends on an eight-processor, multichip module that IBM said puts more computing power into less floor space. The machine can be operated as a single large server, or it can be divided into as many as 16 virtual servers running any combination of Unix and Linux. The new server can also be linked in an array with other p690 eServers to create supercomputers with as many as 1,000 processors.
Suns partitioning system uses a hardware-based approach that requires a partition to have a minimum of four processors. IBMs partitioning method is software-driven, and allows its machines to be partitioned with a single processor. That allows IBM to partition its machines into smaller segments.
But during a hastily arranged conference call held this afternoon to rebut IBMs claims, Sun executives argued that IBMs partitioning methods are not as secure or reliable as the ones being used by Sun. They maintained that IBMs software-driven partitioning method represented a single point of failure, where Suns method has multiple protection features.
According to IDC, IBM is gaining ground on Sun in the high-end Unix market, where machines cost $1 million or more. Last year, Sun had 61 percent of the market, while IBM held 24 percent. During the first six months of this year, IBMs share of the market jumped to 28 percent, while Suns share dropped to 54 percent. Hewlett-Packard came in third, with 18 percent of the market. IDC estimated that the high-end Unix market is worth about $3.47 billion per year.
HP has also been promoting its Unix servers. Earlier this week, the company said it will pay customers 10 percent more than the trade-in value IBM and Sun are offering their customers if they agree to use HPs high-end Unix server, the Superdome, a 64-processor machine.
IBM said its new machine will be far cheaper than a comparable Sun Fire 15K server. Pricing for the p690 eServer starts at $450,000 for an eight-way processor system with 1.1-GHz chips, 8 gigabytes of memory and 36 GB of storage. Pricing for the Sun Fire 15K starts at $1.4 million for a unit with 16 central processing units (CPUs) and 16 GB of memory. Storage configurations vary in price and are an additional charge.
Although Suns machines appear to be more expensive, Sun executives said IBM was comparing apples to oranges when comparing the Sun Fire 15K with the p690 eServer. Suns officials said the low-end p690 eServer was more comparable to Suns Star Fire 6800, a midrange server the company announced earlier this year.
Jonathan Eunice, Illuminatas principal analyst, said that comparing the performance of the two machines is difficult. "Neither product is in general release and they have a tremendously different approach. With the IBM machine, you have 32 incredibly fast, high-bandwidth processors. With Sun, you have 72 or more lower-frequency processors with more latency between them. Without benchmarks, its kind of a guessing game at this point," he said.
But Eunice said the key savings I-managers may derive from the new IBM machine is in software costs. He pointed out that many software vendors such as Oracle charge customers based on the number of processors that are used to run their software. "Sun is throwing Mongolian hordes of processors at the computing problem," he said. By comparison, "IBM processors get more bang per CPU. From a software pricing point of view, IBM has a clear advantage."
Sun executives also took issue with IBMs claim on the software front. "You have to look at how the pricing works for soft partitioning," in licensing software such as Oracles, one Sun spokesman said. "In the case of soft partitioning, Oracle doesnt allow a different boundary for some licenses, so you dont get a pricing advantage. You have to buy a license from Oracle."
The p690 eServer arrives just one day after IBM announced a new financing plan designed to help spur hardware sales. Big Blue said it will give customers low-rate financing, as low as 5.1 percent to customers that finance purchases through IBM Global Financing. The deal is available to customers that buy eServer iSeries and pSeries systems shipped from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 and installed by Jan. 31, 2002. In addition to the low rates, the company is also offering a 90-day deferral of initial payments.