Analysis: New IBM Unix server promises ‘more with less’

13 July 2004 With much bombast and hyperbole, IBM has announced a new Unix server line that it claims outperforms its rivals’ by up to three times, at half their costs.


IBM needs to make a big splash in the Unix server market in order to maintain its momentum against rivals Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard (HP). A recent IDC survey puts IBM in third place, but suggest that it is gaining ground on HP and Sun, increasing its market share from 15% in 2000 to 25% in the first quarter of 2004.

Even if the new p5, to be released in August, has not quite “changed forever Unix computing” as IBM claims, the company has made an unusually large investment in independent testing to justify its enthusiasm.

It claims that its p5 systems are the top performing servers in more than 35 standard benchmarks and that Sun would need 72 processor cores to match the 5000 users supported by 16 of IBM’s Power5 microprocessors.

Gartner analyst Andrew Butler says that although IBM is not making any greater advancement in raw performance than would normally be expected with a new generation of microprocessor, its ability to achieve that performance with fewer chips will keep IBM ahead of the competition for at least 12 months.

“It can have an impact in the area of software licensing, which can charge per processor, and there is an argument that more CPUs [central processing units] makes a system less reliable,” says Butler. “People are more comfortable with a simple topology.”

The similarity of most Unix products means it can be hard for vendors to offer capabilities that distinguishes them for very long. The Power5 chip’s unique selling point – at least until it is matched by Sun or HP – is its “micro-partitioning” technology. This allows a single chip to be divided into up to 10 virtual servers.

Previous Unix virtualisation has been unable to create partitions of fewer than four whole CPUs and uses rigid, labour-intensive hardware configurations. IBM’s micro-partitioning, which draws on the “Hypervisor” software used in its mainframe computers, thus ties into its “on demand” doctrine of flexible, responsive IT by allowing greater precision and horizontal consolidation, with less manual “glue code” required.

Although the server market in general is forecast to grow, the Unix sector is relatively flat, which means one company can only grow at the expense of another. IBM is taking market share away from Sun, says Gartner’s Butler, although there is less evidence that it is hitting HP’s sales directly. But as well as the current technological lead, IBM has the advantage of market goodwill.

“Nobody is doubting its longevity,” says Butler. “We’re almost going back to the kind of era where nobody gets fired for buying IBM – people feel safe with it. But I also hope this doesn’t lead to the market arrogance of the past. IBM needs to remember who pays its bills.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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