IBM, Sun Battle With Mid-Market Servers

Unix war heats up between IBM and Sun.

The Unix war between IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems heated up in April as both companies rolled out mid-market Unix servers in the same week.

The first volley came as IBM released its p670, a scaled-down version of the p690 "Regatta" server that uses Big Blue's "Power4" processor. The Power4 architecture includes two processors on each chip and four processors in a single processor block. The midrange server is available in 4-, 8- and 16-way configurations.

Sun followed up the next day with its own mid-market offering, the Sun Fire 12K, imaginatively nicknamed "Starkitty." (Sun's Sun Fire 15K enterprise server was codenamed "Starcat," hence the name of the scaled-down version.) Sun Fire 12K deploys Sun's Uniboard processor modules, which allow processor and memory units to swap out while the system is online. Starkitty is available in configurations with up to 52 processors.

"This will slam the door shut in the face of Regatta," predicts Shaneen Kahn, Sun's Chief Competitive Officer, announcing the product. Sun positions Starkitty primarily against the p690, rather than the p670, reflecting Sun's usual tendency to position its high-end enterprise servers against the mainframe. In his presentation, Kahn pointed to Starkitty's larger number of discrete processors, benchmarks, and partitioning capabilities as advantages Starkitty holds over the p690.

Sun's uniboard modules contain a single processor, memory, and memory controller on a single board, which can be removed and replaced while the system is online. Kahn said a processor failure with Starkitty would require taking less capacity offline than would the p690, since it has just one processor per module. The uniboard modules are also related to its partitioning capabilities; the server can support up to nine hardware-isolated partitions.

Chuck Bryan, IBM's director of marketing, also pointed to p670's partitioning as an attractive feature for mid-sized and large businesses. Companies can use partitions as a means to consolidate several servers in an n-tier architecture on the box, using a large partition for a database or enterprise application and a number of smaller virtual servers for hosting application servers. The server supports up to 16 partitions tied to hardware.

Bryan also noted the next release of AIX 5L, IBM's Unix flavor, which will support virtual partitions independent of hardware with its next release. IBM plans to release AIX 5L in the second half of next year.

IBM incorporates mainframe reliability technology into p670. Like other pSeries servers, it features "chipkill memory," which disables memory units that create errors, and monitors non-critical errors to predict when a system will fail. Bryan also noted that Power4 processors run cooler than Sun's UltraSparc III chips, making them less likely to fail.