Big Blue Unveils New RISC Workstation

IntelliStation Power p630 incorporates reliability and availability enhancements from pSeries servers

IBM Corp. yesterday unveiled a new RISC-based workstation that features reliability and availability technologies borrowed from its high-end pSeries p690 server. The result, Big Blue says, is that the new IntelliStation Power p630 workstation is actually a retrofitted pSeries p630 server.

“What it does is incorporate the high performance graphics capabilities [associated with a workstation], and was really designed to focus on what we saw as an immediate need,” says Rick Rudd, product manager for IBM’s workstation products. “We had several large customers … that were demanding higher performance products that were more reliable. So we saw an opportunity [with the pSeries p630] to give them that this year.”

Available in either single- or dual-processor configurations, Rudd says the IntelliStation Power p630 is the first of IBM’s RISC-based workstations to be refreshed with its Power4 microprocessors. IBM’s existing RISC-Unix workstations are still powered by Power 3 chips.

The IntelliStation Power p630 can be equipped with up to 16GB of ECC memory and outfitted with IBM’s GXT4500 or GXT6500 3D graphics cards. The p630 supports IBM’s AIX Unix operating system as well as Linux.

IBM Sees Transition to Intel-based Workstations

Concurrent with its announcement of the IntelliStation Power p630, IBM introduced two new Intel-based workstations, the mid-range IntelliStation M Pro 6219 and the high-end IntelliStation Z Pro 6221. The M Pro 6219 is based on the Intel Pentium 4 microprocessor found in standard PCs. The high-end Z Pro 6221 can be outfitted with single or dual Intel Xeon microprocessors running at 2.8 GHz.

Charles King, a senior analyst with consultancy Sageza Research, says that Intel’s Xeon chips today compete with RISC-Unix in the workstation space for all but the most high-end of simulation, design and rendering applications. “As the Intel Xeon chips have become increasingly powerful, they’ve been slowly nibbling away at the lower end of the workstation market.”

As a sign of the times, King points to the defection of 3D effects specialty house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), which earlier this year announced that it planned to support some aspects of animation rendering using Pentium 4-based workstations. ILM had previously used RISC workstations manufactured by Silicon Graphics Inc. to accomplish the same task. “You’re still seeing higher-end workstations being used for the finishing-touch graphics rendering, but it’s tough to argue the price-performance of the Intel-based systems.”

For his part, IBM’s Rudd says that Big Blue anticipates that market momentum will swing away from RISC-Unix and towards Intel and Linux for most segments of the market. At the same time, he stresses, IBM has no plans to abandon the RISC chip. “There is a dramatic shift from Unix to Linux on Intel. But there is still a fairly large established base of Unix customers, many of whom will not be able to make that leap right away, so we’re going to enable all parts of that market as long as they’re viable.”

To that end, Sageza’s King says that the IntelliStation Power p630 is “a machine for high-end, pretty heavy duty workstation functionality.” For skeptics who might question the applicability of a converted server for workstation-type applications, King points out that IBM has a contract to build a cluster based on several of its pSeries p690 servers to compute crash simulations for General Motors Corp. “The new Unix-based workstation is going to fit right into that environment.”

RISC-Unix Market Shrinking

IBM’s announcements follow on the heels of the worst-ever quarter for shipments of Unix workstations. In fact, says Pia Rieppo, a principal analyst with market research firm Gartner Group, workstation shipments as a whole have been on the wane since 1999. “The first half of this year, revenues were half of what they were in the first half of 1999 in actual dollar value. That goes to show how the market has basically collapsed.”

The market for RISC-Unix workstations, she says, has been hardest hit. “Of the shipments in 2001, 72 percent of the shipments were in the … 32-bit Intel CPU camp and 28 percent were in the RISC camp. For the first three quarters of this year, that percentage has tilted even more towards Intel. Now 78 percent of the shipments are Intel and 22 percent are RISC.”

The result, Rieppo points out, is that Intel-based workstations—which are typically priced at a fraction of the cost of RISC-Unix systems—are now volume and revenue market leaders. In place of Unix, more than 95 percent of these workstations run some version of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, according to Gartner.

Rieppo and other analysts don’t expect IBM’s announcement of a new Power processor-based workstation to jump-start the RISC-Unix workstation market. At the same time, she says, IBM’s new RISC workstation has clearly been developed in response to customer demand. “It’s clear that they’re introducing this server model that has graphics capability to meet customer demand from their existing installed base. I don’t think anyone nowadays is trying to grow the RISC market for end users.”

About the Author

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