Given that most industry analysts have for a long time regarded the computer server market as largely commoditised, it was something of a surprise in June to see IBM, with much bombast and hyperbole, take the wraps of a new Unix server line that it claims outperforms competitive products ‘by up to three times, at half their costs’.
IBM needs to make a big splash in the Unix server market for good reason – to give it more traction against rivals Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard (HP). A recent survey by IT industry analyst group IDC puts IBM in third place, but the research suggests that the company 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 IBM p5 server line, due to ship to early customers in August, has not quite “changed forever Unix computing” as IBM executives claim, the company has made an unusually large investment in independent user testing to justify its enthusiasm.
It says 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.
Andrew Butler, an analyst with IT industry watcher Gartner, 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 set them apart 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 virtualisation at the chip level, enabling systems administrators to divide the processing resources of a single chip into up to 10 ‘virtual servers’.
Previous Unix virtualisation has been unable to create partitions of fewer than four whole CPUs and has required the use of 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 by eating the market share of another. At this point, 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, he adds.
“Nobody is doubting IBM’s longevity,” says Butler. “In fact, we are 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 kind of market arrogance IBM displayed in the past. IBM needs to remember who pays its bills.”