IBM plots Unix strategy with Power5 chip

IBM is to boost the midrange and low end of its Unix server line in a move that could liven up competition within the company...

IBM is to boost the midrange and low end of its Unix server line in a move that could liven up competition within the company between competing chip architectures. In 2004, IBM will roll out its Power5 processor, which will complete an overhaul of the company's entire Unix server line.

 Just as the Power4 chip revitalised IBM's Unix servers on the high end, the IBM hoped the Power5 chip could boost the performance of midrange and low end systems, said IBM fellow and chief architect Ravi Arimilli.


With chips tuned for each class of Unix server it sells, IBM wants to keep the heat on Sun Microsystems and stop users from defecting to Intel's Itanium processor.


"The Power5 chip is more of a midrange or low end design that can drive up to the high end and then down to things like blades," Arimilli said. "You don't see that with Power4. Two years between chips is enough time to run away and do some dramatic things."


The Power5 chip will replace the Power4 across the board, but improvements to the chip design and more attention to heat issues will allow IBM to use the new chip further down IBM's server line.


IBM saw the Power4 chip as a way to increase pressure on market leader Sun Microsystems and ward off new competition from Intel. Analysts often point to the processor, which has been available in servers, such as the p690, since late 2001, as the main reason for a spike in IBM's high-end Unix sales. It now aims to do the same with smaller systems, such as the p630 and p610.


"I think they know that the real low end is gone [to Intel], but the midrange and professional blade type of market could be recaptured [from HP and Sun]", said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "That is what you are seeing with Power5."


Unlike competitor Hewlett-Packard, IBM does not plan to make Intel's Itanium its only answer for 64-bit computing at the high end but, instead, offer a variety of 64-bit systems. Having Power and Intel systems sitting side by side can trigger internal dilemmas at the company between the Unix or pSeries team and xSeries or Intel team.


"I won't tell you that we haven't had those discussions [to drop Power and go with Itanium]," said Robert Amezcua, pSeries vice-president at IBM. "We looked hard at the future roadmaps, and we believe strongly that we have the answer in Power technology."


Amezcua added that each team ultimately does what is right for the company, but that the pSeries team hoped to relegate Itanium to a niche in high-performance computing or, better yet, exterminate the processor altogether.


IBM may also throw another lower end system into the mix by adding a server based on Advanced Micro Devices's 64-bit Opteron processor, although Arimilli claimed that once Power5 arrives, it will be IBM's answer for low end 64-bit computing.


"If Opteron takes off, we will be there," Arimilli said. "I think it's a pretty good story for 2003, but it won't be the story in 2004 when Power5 arrives."


Ultimately, the choice of which processor to pick from IBM's arsenal comes down to what type of applications the user needs to run, Eunice said.


IBM and Sun, however, have made things more interesting in the midrange and low end by producing specialised RISC (reduced instruction set computing) chips as opposed to Intel's more general-purpose approach with Itanium and Xeon.


"I think RISC chips have proved they can keep pace with Intel," Eunice said. "It's a wide open, exciting battle at the moment."


One area where IBM's server teams agree is on making sure Linux can run well on servers of all shapes and sizes. In addition to this OS work, IBM is trying to meld its Unix server and Intel server management software to give customers a common look and feel on both sets of systems.


"The next step I see happening is the pSeries and xSeries converging together," Arimilli said. "Linux on the xSeries and Linux on the pSeries should look seamless to the customer. We also want to make sure things like cluster service management are identical."


Both Linux and the clustering software will play a significant role in IBM's Power5 story, the executives said. On the low end, in particular, IBM sees customers linking together Power5-based blade servers with others using Intel's Xeon processors. The cluster management tools and Linux will work as a common link between these systems.

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