High-end sluggers take the gloves off

Heavyweight server users are watching for the outcome of the latest contest between Sun Microsystems and IBM. Computer Weekly...

Heavyweight server users are watching for the outcome of the latest contest between Sun Microsystems and IBM. Computer Weekly presents a ringside view

The stakes have never been higher for server suppliers. Despite the global economic slowdown, rivals Sun and IBM have stood toe-to-toe in a struggle to win the lucrative high end of the market.

Sun expects great things from the recently-launched Sun Fire 15K, a powerful Unix machine billed by the manufacturer as "the new star of the datacentre". Not to be outdone, IBM has entered the fray with the long-awaited pSeries 690, a 32-way system employing the company's much-hyped Power 4 processor.

Both firms are keen to push the barriers of high-performance computing and the effectiveness of the processors like Ultrasparc III and Power 4 could be a major selling point for users eager to power a growing range of applications.

Sun users have already welcomed the fact that the Sun Fire 15K is the first of the hardware giant's high-end mainframes to offer the high-speed 900MHz Ultrasparc III processors - at last year's launch the chips had a maximum speed of 750MHz. Notably, Sun plans to extend the Ultrasparc III chips to servers in its midframe range (an ill-defined class of Unix server allegedly competing with the classic proprietary mainframe) which means users will be able to upgrade their machines to use faster versions of the Ultrasparc as they appear without having to replace other parts.

Dave Shearer, chairman of the Sun User Forum, said, "This will give users a lot more options." The Sun Fire 15K offers scalability and will bring benefits to the datacentre, he said.

Tim Jennings, research production director of analyst firm Butler Group, last week described the launch of the server as "quite revolutionary". He said, "As you get bigger servers it is more important to have that upwards migration path for the likes of e-commerce applications." He said Sun's latest offering reflects the fact that users are moving to a more centralised computing model.

The Sun Fire 15K is undoubtedly a powerful beast, containing up to 106 high-speed processors and boasting more than half a terabyte of memory. Sun maintains that the new server can be partitioned into up to 18 domains, each one handling a different job. The company also claims that a 72-processor box will run code 71 times faster than a single-chip box.

Mark Lewis, datacentre server product marketing manager at Sun, said, "There is no other system in the world that has been built with this type of power in terms of CPUs."

With a broad range of high-performance features, the launch of the Sun Fire 15K has definitely raised the stakes in Sun's ongoing hardware battle with IBM, which countered its rival this week with the launch of the pSeries 690, codenamed Regatta.

IBM boosted its own chip technology with the launch, debuting the high-speed Power 4 processor in the 32-way system. The company will also allow users to create both Linux and AIX logical partitions via a "hypervisor" facility on the pSeries 690. AIX is IBM's "flavour" of Unix.

Users are already benefiting from the heightened competition between the two companies. Both IBM and Sun have begun pushing high-end features further down their product lines, giving users more power and stability on lower-priced hardware.

IBM has already brought many mainframe computing features to its high-end AIX/Unix servers, offering users software designed to help with diagnostic functions and automatic repair tasks.

Some experts believe, however, that Sun still has a long way to go before it can match the sort of success that IBM enjoys in the high-end server market. Jennings said, "As we move towards bigger systems the service element becomes more important and in IBM Global Services there is a proven service operation already in place."

Sun has recently been keen to underline the importance of its service partners, such as EDS, although there is a feeling that this may not be enough to regain the advantage over IBM. Jennings added, "IBM still has an advantage from a services point of view and people will need convincing that Sun and its partners can deliver."

As far as Sun's own user base is concerned, analysts believe that users will have breathed a collective sigh of relief with the launch of the Sun Fire 15K. Andy Butler, of analyst group Gartner, said, "This will give users confidence that Sun is investing in a platform that will grow with them for years to come."

The Sun Fire 15K certainly reaffirms Sun's faith in the Solaris operating system but also gives users another highend server option to accompany its Enterprise 10000. Butler said, "The Sun Fire 15K is vitally important to Sun [because] users know that the Enterprise 10000's life is nearly over."

Sun executives predict that the Enterprise 10000 will continue to be shipped for between 12 and 18 months, with support continuing for a further two years. Users readily admit that the Sun Fire 15K gives them greater choice at the high end. Shearer said, "This completes the Sun server range and gives users more options." They can either employ a distributed server model or use one central server, he said.

But do Sun and IBM users really need boxes this big? Some industry experts argue that the days of the big boxes are over.

Analyst Phil Payne, of Isham-Research.com, said, "The launch of the Sun Fire 15K leaves me cold, nobody wants these big machines." He acknowledges that users will be interested in the performance benefits of the Ultrasparc III chip but warns that they will not go for machines as big as the Sun Fire 15K, "You get much more availability if you use multiple, smaller systems."

Everything that the modern business does must be geared towards flexibility and employing smaller systems is just one way to deal with a challenging economic climate at a time when some businesses experience rapid growth while others are facing the realities of global economic slowdown.

Payne said, "Business users want machines half the size of this because they don't know what is around the corner." He believes that companies running two or three medium-sized high-tech systems are better placed to adapt to the changeable world economy.

Whether users decide to employ multiple smaller servers or not, the performance benefits of the two new systems are self-evident. It is also worth remembering that lower end users stand to gain such machines since both Sun and IBM are astute enough to realise that high-end features on low-end machines equals a happy customer base. The decision to use Ultrasparc III across the Sun product range is the perfect example of this.

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