IBM Corp.‘s latest foray into the enterprise-class Unix server market is built on a less-is-more philosophy.

Unix server leader Sun Microsystems Inc. launched the 106-processor Sun Fire 15K in late September, but Big Blue is betting its 32-processor eServer p690, also known as Regatta, can close the gap.

According to statistics from Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, Sun holds 47.1 per cent of the high-end (US$1 million or more) Unix server market, estimated to be worth about US$4.4 billion. IBM is second at 18.8 per cent. Unix servers account for about half of the US$60 billion server market.

According to Chris Pratt, national sales and marketing manager for eServer pSeries, the p690 is the first box using the Power4 chip. Each chip, running at either 1.1 GHz or 1.3 GHz, comes with 2 CPUs, a shared cache with a bandwidth of 125GB per second and 174 million transistors. The end result, he says, is 16 times more data per chip than Sun’s UltraSparc III chip.

“The less processors you have to manage, the less points of failure you have to content with the better,” Pratt says. “The ability to handle these enormous volumes of data at unprecedented bandwidth provides this type of performance. That’s why we talk about a 16-way (16 processor server) and a 32-way and we don’t have to get to a 106-way,” Pratt says.

Pratt says this kind of performance lends itself to data centres, large enterprises with heavy commercial workloads, and the science and research communities as well as server consolidation. What it isn’t, however, is a mainframe replacement. He says Regatta will extend its capabilities.

While the p690 isn’t intended to replace mainframes, it does borrow from them. Pratt says has capitalized on IBM’s experience in mainframe partitioning. Logical partitioning, he says, allows resources to be shared at a granular level: per processor, per 256MB of memory, and per I/O slot.

“The other guys are working in a physical partitioning mode that says that processor has to use that memory and those I/O slots because that’s how it’s physically built,” says Pratt.

“The benefit around logic partitioning is the absolute granularity as well as the ability to run different levels of the operating system or Linux in partition and share resources in a very cost effective manner. That’s why server consolidation is coming back so fast.”

Cost and lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO) was also a big concern. The Regatta line is millions less expensive than Sun’s Sun Fire line. The base model p690, an eight-way 1.1 GHz system with 8 GB of memory (scalable to 256GB) and 36.4GB of storage (scalable to 4.5 terabytes), costs US$450,000. The price jumps to US$1.8 million fully loaded. The high-end Sun Fire 15K costs about US$10 million. Regatta begins shipping in December.

“Clearly this is a price attack that IBM is performing which is interesting because once upon a time, years ago, that was Sun’s attack on its competitors. Now IBM is turning around and sort of sticking it to Sun in this regard,” says David Freund, a server technologies analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc.

In terms of TCO, Giga analyst Brad Day says a lower CPU count changes the economics of software licensing. He says Oracle charges based on the number of processors, and companies like SAP, Baan, and Siebel Systems are likely to follow suit.

“Generally the software and software-related services . . . typically that’s anywhere from 50 to 75 per cent of a standard bid. It’s the far more expensive aspect of the hardware,” says Day. “But the fact is if you’re driving the software licence down because you can do more work on a lower processor count, the lower process count means less hardware costs.”

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