IBM refreshes Power systems to keep Unix sales edge

The updates may keep IBM ahead of HP and Oracle as the Unix market recovers from the recession

IBM has updated its Power systems lineup with higher-density blades and faster processors for its mid-range Power 750 server, looking to keep its momentum in Unix sales as the market inches back to life.

IBM has been outselling both Oracle and Hewlett-Packard in the Unix market, helped by its introduction last year of the eight-core Power 7 processor, and by lingering doubts about the roadmaps of its two biggest rivals, said IDC analyst Jed Scaramella.

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HP had to fend off more questions about the future of HP-UX last month, after Oracle joined Red Hat and Microsoft in saying it would stop developing new software for Intel's Itanium processor, on which HP's Unix servers are based.

HP assured its customers its roadmap for Itanium systems stretches out more than a decade, and said it would support its customers on existing Oracle releases throughout that time. But a glimmer of uncertainty can make buyers wary when it comes to decisions about high-end platforms.

"Whenever questions are raised and people are talking about business-critical applications, they tend to be very cautious," Scaramella said.

HP got something of a boost on Tuesday, however, when Intel announced in Beijing that its next Itanium processor, code-named Poulson, will ship next year and should double the performance of the current Itanium 9300.

Oracle has had challenges too. The company may finally have convinced customers that it is committed to developing Sun's Sparc-based systems, but it has also indicated that it has more interest in selling specialty, high-end systems than general purpose servers.

"That may have been a comment about x86 more than Sparc, but it put some questions in the market about Oracle's overall strategy," Scaramella said.

Those factors combined mean that most of the Unix-to-Unix conversions IDC has seen have been to IBM's AIX platform, he said. HP is faring better in the x86 market, Scaramella said, and overall its server business is strong.

That's not to say IBM's Unix business is booming; the Unix market as a whole is still coming back from the recession, and IDC predicts that sales will be down 1 percent this year compared to last, Scaramella said.

The Unix systems market was worth $3.8 billion in the fourth quarter, according to IDC. IBM took 53.8 percent of that, up from 48 percent in the same quarter a year earlier, Scaramella said. HP's share stayed roughly level at 23.3 percent, and Oracle's declined from 23 percent to 17.7 percent.

Tom Rosamilia, general manager of IBM's Unix and mainframe businesses, said IBM has seen a jump in demand for Power systems during the current, second quarter, and "we're seeing an acceleration of that demand looking ahead in the pipeline."

The blades announced Tuesday are updates to IBM's first Power7 blades, the PS701 and PS702, announced a year ago this month. They double the density of those products, meaning customers can fit more compute power in the same form factor.

The PS703 crams 16 Power7 cores into one blade, up from eight cores in the PS701. The PS704, which IBM calls a "doublewide" because it snaps two blades together with high-speed interconnects, will support up to 32 Power7 cores, up from 16 in the PS702 doublewide released last year.

IBM doubled the density by shrinking the packaging around the processor and using new, "ultra-small" memory controllers, it said.

"Based on the combination of these new technologies, the layout and configuration of the design allowed for placement of two 8-core P7 processors on a single wide blade, while still preserving 16 DIMM slots and support for new solid-state disks or rotating storage options," IBM said.

The Power 750 is getting a moderate speed bump from faster processors. The new options include eight-core Power7 chips running at 3.6GHz or 3.2GHz, a six-core Power7 at 3.7GHz, or a four-core Power7 at 3.7GHz.

The Watson supercomputer that won Jeopardy earlier this year was built from a cluster of Power 750 servers, along with IBM's DeepQA and other software.

Watson showed that a machine can outsmart humans under certain conditions, but IBM still has a niggling problem: who wants to buy one?

"At this point we don't have that many customers that want to buy a Jeopardy machine," Rosamilia acknowledged.

IBM has been trying to find commercial uses for other Watson-like systems and believes it has found one in the medical world.

Watson was good at sifting through massive amounts of unstructured data very quickly to find the best answers to a question. If a doctor could input a patient's symptoms, blood tests and other data, a computer might be able to sift through reams of medical histories and other data and suggest possible diagnoses, Rosamilia said.

"Think of this as a medical assistant, not a replacement for a doctor," he said. "The computer can say, Here's what I think the problem is and here's my degree of certainty about it."

The new 750 processors will be available May 20, and a system with a four-core processor starts at $30,180. The new blades will ship May 20, IBM said. Pricing for those wasn't available.

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