System p, System i to Get Boost from Power 6

Late last month, Big Blue gave pundits a glimpse at Power 6, the next-generation RISC CMOS it expects to unveil next year

It’s been a long time since IBM Corp. introduced a major new revision of its Power CMOS—the Power 5 shipped almost 30 months ago. At last month’s IBM Systems and Technology Group (STG) analyst briefings in Las Vegas, Big Blue gave pundits a glimpse at Power 6, the next-generation Power CMOS that it expects to unveil next year.

If IBM can make good on the Power 6 performance specifications it outlined, expect an extremely powerful performer. “[T]he new processors promise to deliver twice the performance of previous-generation Power chips within the same power envelope as Power 5+,” says Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT. “[Customers] will enjoy double the system throughput they have today with no discernable increase in power consumption—cool stuff for businesses increasingly nervous about ballooning data center electrical consumption and unstable power prices.”

Big Blue’s System p and System i groups share the same Power CMOS, and—although System i was first to market with Power 5 in May of 2004—it is System p that probably stands to gain the most from the revitalized Power CMOS, which is expected to be clocked as high as 5 GHz.

“The System p Group inhabits a UNIX market addicted to maximum speed but squeezed by the same power-consumption woes as any business unit,” King points out. “Given Power’s ongoing hold on the lead in UNIX performance metrics, we expect Power 6 will not be happy news for IBM competitors who are dependant on Itanium and UltraSPARC platforms. Both trail far behind Power’s performance with little promise of catching up anytime soon.”

System i, for its part, has hit still another rocky patch. After revenues surged for much of last year—inspiring hope that System i, like Big Blue’s zSeries mainframe line, was benefiting from a minicomputer renaissance of sorts—sales slid during Q4 of 2005 (by 12 percent), and continued to decline over the first two quarters of 2006, too. In Q1, for example, System i revenues were off a whopping 22 percent, while Q2 revenues were down by 7 percent.

Excluding 2005, in which System i notched strong first-, second-, and third-quarter showings, Big Blue’s minicomputer fortunes have been more down (10) than up (6)—on a per-quarter basis—since 2001. It was only in 2005, when IBM announced a round of System i upgrades and promoted that platform in a variety of venues (including TV ads), did System i buck this trend.

At last month’s STG, however, IBM officials were surprisingly sanguine about System i’s prospects. For one thing, they pointed out, the AS/400 market is notoriously cyclical. As they outgrow the capabilities and the capacity of the hardware they already have, IBM officials believe, AS/400 customers will come back to the System i well. More to the point, says King, IBM seems to be serious about changing the very dynamics of the iSeries marketplace.

Instead of an upgrade-driven revenue model, Big Blue is trying to give companies a reason to expand their iSeries investments—and to entice new (non-traditional) customers into the fold, too. “The only way for IBM to break out of this cycle is to broaden the appeal of System i solutions, an effort the company is pursuing with the help of notable ISVs and other partners,” he points out, citing IBM’s recent efforts to market affordable System i bundles that are geared toward JD Edwards and SAP customers.

More recently, King notes, Big Blue unveiled a new System i-based IP telephony product that it co-developed with 3Com Corp.

That offering—which should be available sometime this month—taps 3Com’s VCX platform and the System i’s logical partitioning (LPAR) capabilities, resulting in a highly integrated solution that promises to be able to support most if not all of a customers’ IP telephony needs on a single platform. It’s a no-brainer move for IBM, which desperately needs to recast System I as something other than a legacy enterprise computing platform.

“System i runs the risk of becoming a prisoner to its own longevity and success; loved deeply by its traditional customers but considered old-fashioned by younger companies and IT professionals,” King points out. “[IBM] aims to position System i firmly in the midst of leading small business technology trends, thus driving value for the platform’s numerous devotees and enticing potential new customers to give it a chance.”

About the Author

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