Unix server battle heats up

Summary:IBM and Sun Microsystems next week will release dueling Unix servers one notch below their top-end models, fueling the flames in a price and market-share war

On Monday, sources said, IBM will announce its p670, a 16-processor system featuring the Power4 processor, which was previously available only in the high-end, 32-processor p690 "Regatta" system that went on sale in late 2001. The p670 will bring to IBM's midrange product line "partitioning" features, allowing a single machine to be divided into several servers.

Sun, meanwhile, will counterattack on Tuesday with a system code-named Starkitty, designed to fill the midrange slot. Shahin Khan, Sun's vice president of product marketing, acknowledged that the midrange market has been overlooked in Sun's product line.

The company was able to design the new system relatively quickly because the main "Uniboard" building block can be used across Sun's entire Sun Fire product line, Khan said, adding that Starkitty will fall between the 24-processor 6800 and the 72-processor 15K.

Both products are important to their backers because they shore up any weak points in overall strategy, analysts said.

"Sun really has never had a presence in that $500,000 to $1 million price band. Starkitty hits it right in that sector," said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day.

As for Big Blue, Power4 systems now will be available at an "unheard of" price, Day said. A p670 with four processors and 4GB of memory will cost about $175,000.

"We never thought they could bring what's such an expensive class of technology to that system so quickly," Day said. In contrast, a fully configured Regatta server cost more than $1 million as of the product's release in October of last year.

Unix servers, often used for important business tasks such as managing inventory, accounts and orders, account for the largest slice of the overall server market. Of the $47 billion in total server sales in 2001, $21 billion was made up of Unix servers, Gartner said. Sun grabbed the top spot, with 35.2 percent of that market, Hewlett-Packard took 22.5 percent, and IBM snatched up 20.3 percent.

The new systems from IBM and Sun put pressure on HP, which bolstered its midrange Unix server stronghold with the eight-processor rp7410 in February and the rp8400 in September.

All these Unix servers use each company's own chip and own version of Unix: Power4 and AIX for IBM, UltraSparc and Solaris for Sun, and PA-RISC and HP-UX for HP. They also boast partitioning abilities.

Partitioning is key to the current "consolidation" trend among corporate customers, in which a single powerful server replaces several smaller ones, a move that allows hardware to be used closer to its full capacity and simplifies management headaches posed by what Day calls "server sprawl."

Topics: Tech Industry

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