March 17, 2003 1:38 PM PST

IBM Unix server plans taking flight

IBM has powered up a prototype of "Squadron," its coming high-end Unix server with 64 Power5 processors, an important step in Big Blue's plans to unify its four server lines.

"We manufactured our first big system. It's powered up and running," said Adalio Sanchez, general manager of IBM's Unix server group, in an interview Monday. The Squadron machine, formerly code-named Armada, will go on sale in 2004, he said.

In the near term, the success of Power5 and its descendents will help IBM continue its years-long effort to bump aside No. 1 Unix-server seller Sun Microsystems and No. 2 Hewlett-Packard. But in the longer term, the Power processors are the foundation of a strategy that reaches much further across the IBM product line.

The Power chips, today the brains of IBM's pSeries Unix servers and iSeries midrange systems, ultimately will be used in the company's vaunted zSeries mainframe line as well. "That's a longer-term strategy," Sanchez said, confirming the plan.

Unified, or converged, hardware also brings into focus IBM's wholehearted but somewhat scattered embrace of the Linux operating system. Today, Linux is found chiefly on servers with Intel processors, but IBM is working feverishly to coax software partners such as database giant Oracle to come up with Linux versions of their products for Power processors as well, Sanchez said.

Convergence is economically necessary for IBM, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "IBM cannot afford to have five different groups," in its server division, he said, referring to the four server groups and the storage group, which also uses Power processor technology.

Major move
The convergence means a major change for mainframe servers prized for their reliability and stability. It's comparable to Apple Computer switching its computers from using Motorola 68000-series processors to using PowerPC chips, except the customers affected by the change aren't graphic artists, they're some of the world's largest banks.

But if nearer-term Power accomplishments are anything to judge by, Big Blue will be able to make a graceful transition. In addition to firing up the Squadron machine just weeks after booting the first Power5 computer, IBM also is planning a revamp of its high-end Power4 systems.

By independent measures, IBM's Unix servers are gaining ground. Although the company's Unix server revenue dropped 7 percent from 2001 to 2002, from $3.85 billion to $3.6 billion, its competitors suffered more, according to market research firm IDC. IBM gained 1.1 percentage points of market share, rising to 21 percent, after Sun's 38 percent and HP's 30 percent.

The fastest server in Big Blue's pSeries line, the p690, uses a 1.3GHz Power4 processor, and IBM debuted the faster 1.45GHz Power4+ in the midrange eight-processor p650. By June, the company will bring a faster processor to the p690, a complicated task because the high-end server squeezes four Power4 chips and many other processors into a complex package of electronics called a multichip module.

"We are still finalizing the exact speeds. It's going to be faster than 1.3GHz or 1.45GHz," Sanchez said of the system, colloquially called the p690+. "You'll see it within the first half" of 2003, he added.

Building Intel-processor based xSeries servers into the convergence plan is harder, because the systems by definition don't use Power processors at their core. But IBM is still working on doing that through the adoption of Linux and the unification of management tools.

IBM only recently has decided its management tools should work the same across its various server lines--"everything down to the thing that buzzes your pager" when something goes wrong, Eunice said.

Linux: Reinforcing convergence
The convergence plan provides a boost to IBM's Linux strategy. IBM currently supports Linux on all four of its server lines, but the task is made more complicated because those systems use three different hardware foundations.

A unified foundation would make it easier to support Linux across the line. The open-source nature of Linux makes it comparatively easy to build a version of the operating system for a different type of computer, but the fact that software companies must follow suit with their own different versions makes for barriers to supporting many different computers.

In other words, a version of Oracle's database software for Intel Xeon servers running Linux won't work on an IBM mainframe running Linux. For that reason, Eunice said he didn't think the Power Linux strategy was "terribly attractive" right now.

Although many companies, such as BEA Systems and Veritas are backing Linux, few back the operating system on anything other than Intel processors.

It presents a barrier even to IBM, which must create separate versions of WebSphere, DB2, Tivoli and other software packages. Versions of IBM's WebSphere and DB2 for Linux on Power processors are in testing now at customer sites, Sanchez said.

That barrier means IBM must work extra hard to round up support from software companies--often called independent software vendors, or ISVs--for its various servers.

"We have major recruitment going on right now," Sanchez said. "We're in recruitment with the top 10 ISVs as we speak."

 

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