IBM Announces New pSeries Eight-Way

pSeries p650 to compete with servers from Sun, HP in the midrange

IBM Corp. unveiled a new addition to its pSeries line of Unix servers yesterday: the eight-way p650. IBM says its newest pSeries server will be priced at about half the cost of the pSeries 660 system it is slated to replace.

According to Jim McGaughan, IBM director of eServer marketing, the p650 has been designed to compete in midrange accounts with Unix systems from rivals Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., where IBM currently trails both vendors in market-share. Says McGaughan, “We believe that [the pSeries p650] will have the same impact as our very large p690 did one year ago.”

McGaughan notes that several of IBM’s new pSeries p650 packages will be priced at roughly 40 percent of Sun’s equivalent SunFire 3800 eight-way systems. According to Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata, IBM is being very aggressive with its packaged system pricing. “IBM is creating some system packages, some very reasonable system packages, but the very aggressive pricing is focused on those packages. They’re really strongly encouraging people to buy into those specific packages.”

The pSeries p650 is outfitted with the latest revision of Big Blue’s Power4 microprocessor, dubbed the Power4+, which runs at 1.2 and 1.45 GHz. Nathan Brookwood, a principal analyst with consultancy Insight64, says that Big Blue’s current Power4 microprocessor is currently the top performer among all RISC-based chips—consistently outperforming Sun’s UltraSPARC III and HP’s PA-RISC 8700 in uni-processor benchmarks. “If you look at the SPEC benchmarks, it’s usually IBM, followed by HP and then comes Sun.”

Like the fast UltraSPARC III chip Sun introduced in September, IBM’s new Power 4+ is fabricated with a .13 micron process. McGaughan says that in addition to enabling higher clock speeds, the move to .13 microns has several other benefits. “When you get this fine [of] a lithography, a couple of things happen. The chip gets smaller, it tends to run faster, it tends to require less power (which generates less heat), and the smaller the chip, the more yield you get when you produce it, [so] the cost of it comes down.”

The pSeries p650 incorporates many of the reliability features that IBM designed into the p690, including hot plug capability, as well as redundant power supplies and fans, and Big Blue’s autonomic computing capabilities. In addition, McGaughan notes, IBM built its “chip kill” error correcting memory technology into the p650, which "helps to eliminate memory errors on the order of 100 fold over ECC memory.”

Chip kill technology scatters bits to different physical memory areas so that if “one piece of your memory goes bad, we scatter them so that … we can recreate them [from the other areas],” McGaughan explains.

The p650 supports IBM’s logical partitioning (LPAR) technology, which makes it possible to deploy as many as eight logical partitions on an eight-way p650 system. “We can do up to 8 [logical partitions], and we can actually do things dynamically, so you can move resources from one partition to another without shutting down.”

Illuminata’s Haff says that LPAR technology is the biggest differentiator between IBM and its competitors—especially Sun. “By IBM bringing their high-end logical partitioning down here, that’s clearly a much better match for this class of system than Sun’s four processor incremental partitioning. Essentially, software-based partitions in general are going to be a very good match for these customers.”

According to Richard Partridge, vice president of enterprise servers at consultancy D.H. Brown Associates, it’s not clear that customers who deploy eight-way servers are always interested in partitioning them. As a result, he points out, Sun markets two eight-way systems, the SunFire 3800 (which is designed to support system partitioning) and the economical V880 (which doesn’t). The difference between the two vendors, he says, is one of messaging. “Sun was able to say, ‘We will have two different models, one with the full feature set, one that costs slightly more.’ IBM is saying, ‘We don’t make you have to make that choice. We’ll give you the same capabilities and we’re not going to charge extra for that.'”

Despite IBM’s aggressive stance on pricing, and in spite of the pSeries p650’s performance and partitioning advantages, analysts don’t anticipate that most shops will abandon Solaris or HP-UX to move to AIX and the pSeries.

“People certainly don’t switch Unix vendors casually, so while on the one hand, obviously, you always want as good a product as you can offer, in the aggregate, someone who’s a Sun shop is not going to suddenly run out and buy an IBM system because they like the features in a midrange product,” concludes Illuminata’s Haff.

The pSeries p650 is slated to ship by December. Although it will initially only include support for IBM’s AIX operating system, McGaughan expects that support for Linux will be available by Q1 2003. “We anticipate that [at] the beginning of next year, [Linux vendor] SuSE will have everything fully tested and this new p650 will be able to support just AIX, just Linux, or a combination of AIX and Linux.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.