Linux and AIX link up on IBM's biggest Unix server

Regatta finally launches and IBM claims price-performance leadership, with a Linux strategy that calls the future of AIX into question

IBM used its long-awaited Regatta Unix server launch to trumpet its claim to the best price-performance high-end Unix server, and score points against Sun and Hewlett-Packard. As well as the much-leaked p690 Regatta server, the event also contained hints as to the future of AIX and a preview of what is next for IBM's Intel server range.

"We're two years ahead, and ours is half the price," said Erich Clementi, vice president of system sales in EMEA. As predicted, price-performance was the key message, and IBM offered the following comparison: a 16-way p690 with 16GB of memory costing $761,878 gives 808 SPECint2000 or processing power, while a 16-way Sun Fire with 16GB of memory costing $1,413,840 gives 467 SPECint2000.

More interesting was IBM's footwork around market conditions and its overall server plan. Clementi obviously found it hard not to gloat about the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the shift of emphasis towards conventional businesses, where IBM has always been more comfortable. "Now there is a more sober spending pattern and the boardroom is taking over the infrastructure. It looks like the old economy," he said.

To demonstrate Unix's value in the enterprise, he gleefully tossed aside dot-com glamour to choose bricks and mortar companies for reference sites: washing machine company Whirlpool, which cut order processing costs by an unlikely 93 percent with a supply chain integration project, and Safeway, whose forecasting project paid for itself in 11 months.

The company seized the chance to justify its eServer marketing strategy, which has caused some confusion since all IBM servers were renamed last year -- the 390 mainframes became the zSeries; RS/6000 Unix boxes, the pSeries; AS/400s the iSeries; and Intel servers the zSeries.

"This is more than a branding excercise," said Leo Steiner, vice president of pSeries in EMEA. "It goes into the DNA of the servers." The p690 has mainframe technology built into it, including the multi-chip module and disk partitioning. Nevertheless, there are four different servers there, which IBM turned into a feature -- "Different workloads requre different, specialised computers," said Clementi, with a swipe at Sun's "one size fits all" approach.

The p690 has two processors on each chip, four chips to a module and up to 32 processors per server. "Blue Hammer" PSSP clustering can link up to 1000 processors. The p690's Power4 processors run at 1.1GHz or 1.3GHz, and give nearly twice the performance of those in the p680. As well as the commercial versions, a technical version for high performance computing has two chips per module, and more memory.

This year's operating system breakthrough is to have both Linux and IBM's own AIX Unix flavour running natively in their own partitions, instead of running a hosted Linux as with last year's AIX 5L. Logical partitioning consolidates workloads more efficiently, and a programme called eLiza is intended to make servers self-healing, and all but self-sufficient.

Having slated other suppliers for the multiplicity of their Unixes, the IBM team then had to explain how AIX is positioned alongside Linux. As you might expect they both have their place: AIX is tunable while Linux is customisable, AIX offers performance and Linux is cheap, and so on. However the plans showed the two getting closer, as IBM "accelerates the maturation" of Linux, and adds Linux-like features to AIX.

The big question is whether AIX will eventually disappear, and here IBM's answer has echoes of Tony Blair's policy on the pound: "AIX could go away. It might go in five years, or ten years, or never," said Colin Grocock, eServer business development manager. "It will be driven by application vendors and customers."

We will clearly be hearing more of the eLiza project. It lets the server self-heal, carrying on when memory breaks down, as well as monitoring data for failures. All very mainframe-like, which leads to what may be IBM's biggest problem with pSeries -- the difficulty in pitching them against their most natural target, the company's own zSeries mainframes, which sell at vastly more per MIPS of processing power. Sun has lined its servers up against IBM mainframes with aggressive positioning of mainframe replacing software like Unikix, that replaces IBM's CICS, but IBM has to pitch them more gently, like a supermarket with several brands on its shelves. PSeries is the cheaper carrot, while zSeries is the premium organic range, and some of its customers like to pay more for their vegetables. Grocock needed to be reminded that IBM actually does have its own Unix based CICS replacement software

And finally, as you might expect, the event saw some egregious "benchmarketing". Although Fujitsu-Siemens "Kaiser" server is widely believed to have more performance, IBM still claimed to have the world's most powerful Unix server because, as Steiner hesitantly fudged, Kaiser hasn't yet taken the same benchmark tests.

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