IBM Brings SP Back to Earth

For those who dismiss the RS/6000 SP as a novelty in the commercial market -- a super computing Goliath better equipped to run a mission to Mars than a business enterprise resource planning package -- IBM has come down from the stars with a new microprocessor technology that focuses more on price/performance than ever before.

IBM introduced in February a new node for its RS/6000 SP, based on a new family of microprocessors called Power3. "The SP, also known as Deep Blue, is a highly scalable machine made up of a number of nodes," says David Gelardi, director of benchmarking and solution initiatives for IBM RS/6000 Division. "The configuration of these nodes depends upon the kind of work you're using the SP for."

Though the SP has had a number of high profile successes over the past couple of years -- most notably, the Deep Blue super computer that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov, the RAD6000 flight computer that piloted the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft and the contract with the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) to develop high-speed switching technology on the RS/6000 SP for use in securing the nation’s aging stockpile of nuclear weapons -- IBM wants its customers to take notice of the technology for use within the enterprise.

In the commercial market, the needs are becoming similar to those in research settings, according to Gelardi, who adds that the SP can look like any other enterprise server. "The computing requirements of our commercial customers are beginning to blur a little bit with the computing requirements of the big research sites," he says. "Larger customers realize on the commercial side that their data is really a strategic corporate asset. Harnessing the power and the information that comes out of that data is critical for them to make business decisions."

The SP has been successful in bringing large-scale computing down to the corporate level without added complexity, Gelardi points out. "The way in which you can use the SP is like any of our Unix competition or any other server," he says. "You don't have to treat this machine as a large parallel server. Price/performance is competitive with the competition on a per node basis. The new node basically provides more performance for less price. It's sort of the logical follow-on to the Power2 super node."

The enhanced SP is the second RS/6000 product based on Power3. The 43P Model 260 RS/6000 workstation based on Power3 was introduced in October. "It's practically the same microprocessor in a different form factor to what's being delivered in the workstation," Gelardi adds.

The introduction of Power3 technology to the server side of RS/6000 gives this server line a chance at the commercial market, in addition to the research shops where RS/6000 has been popular in the past, agrees Joyce Becknell, director of Unix for Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

"Part of the challenge is IBM positioning and marketing it," Becknell says. "A lot of IT shops have Unix now in the high end of the enterprise. IBM still has a lot of focus on high-end computing, or what they call 'deep computing.' They're going to position the RS/6000, especially the SP [with Power3], toward the high end of the enterprise market. But I certainly think they're going to see more users looking to try this in other applications. They've done a lot of work with the ERP vendors and that's a lot of what drives sales in [the enterprise computing market]."

Becknell points out two keys to IBM's success with the Power3 SP in the enterprise market. The first key is to "get on the short list, so that when IT shops are looking around, they think about RS/6000 as well as HP, Sun and Compaq. Part of the way to do that is to message into those markets, which I think they're aware of and they're doing."

The second key for IBM, according to Becknell, is to make its sales force aware that this is an opportunity for the SP. Becknell questions IBM on whether or not its sales people understand the market and where the RS/6000 is best positioned.

At the high end of the enterprise market, the RS/6000 SP is not likely to compete with the AS/400, according to Becknell, primarily because the AS/400 is usually introduced to an enterprise as "a packaged deal. It's really a case where IBM puts together a solution for a business to make implementation and use as easy as possible," she says.

On the high end of enterprise computing, "ease is usually not their problem," she says. "It's usually power and flexibility that they're looking for. The RS/6000 makes more sense at the high end because that's the extremely flexible platform. High end users have a need for speed, power and reliability."