IBM, HP Introduce New Unix Servers

IBM Corp. and Hewlett Packard Co. each rolled out new midrange Unix servers this fall. Both companies hope to better compete with Sun Microsystems Inc. for the Unix marketplace.

IBM's pSeries 660M1 is a PowerPC-based server running IBM's latest Unix flavor, AIX 5L. The server is available in configurations from one to eight processors, which can be modified to meet software-licensing restrictions.

According to Chuck Bryan, director of marketing for pSeries at IBM, the 660M1 is a trade-off between scaleability and size. "We've always had the best performance in our 660 series," he says.

Mainframe-style availability features are built into the 660M1. Its ChipKill feature allows the server to use a second bank of RAM when error correction reveals a problem. In addition, it has a hardware-logging feature called "First Failure," which detects and records hardware abnormalities that might lead to a failure. When the unit is serviced, the log is used to see what parts need to be replaced.

Bryan says enterprises typically use pSeries machines with low numbers of processors as Java application servers, while scaled-up servers are often used for back-end databases.

IBM hopes to compete with Sun's Sun Fire line on price and performance. According to IBM, the server costs one-third the price of an equivalent Sun server. The pSeries 660M1 does lack some features of the Sun Fire line, such as partitioning and hot-swappable processors.

Hewlett Packard also introduced a new Unix server in September. The HP Server rp8400 is available with up to 16 PA-RISC processors and runs the HP-UX 11i Unix flavor.

Like IBM's 660M1, HP bills the rp8400 as a midrange server, competing with the Sun Fire line. The HP server does offer partitioning capabilities, making it a better match for the Sun "midframe."

Chris Kruell, group marketing manager for Sun hardware, believes that HP and IBM's new offerings do not compare favorably to the Sun Fire line. Although the servers have comparable computing power, they lack the availability features of Sun Fire. Kruell says everything in Sun Fire servers—processors and memory included—is redundant, and the logging system is more advanced. Although Sun has gone to great lengths to improve availability, Kruell says, "We don't go so far as to call it fault-tolerant."

Regardless, Kruell says features that allow administrators to hot-swap processors and memory modules are a boon to the Unix world. "Once upon a time these features were only available in the mainframe world, and Sun innovated by bringing them into the Unix world," he says.

From Sun's point of view, IBM and HP barely scratch the surface of the "midframe" concept. Kruell says Sun is out-shipping HP and IBM in terms of midrange Unix servers, perhaps because it was first to bring mainframe technology to the midrange price point.