IBM plots road ahead with Power5

Big Blue says chip will boost low-end Unix

AUSTIN -- IBM has plans to make the midrange and low end of its Unix line stronger in a move that could liven up competition within the company between competing chip architectures.

In 2004, IBM will roll out its Power5 processor, which will in some ways complete an overhaul of the company's entire Unix server line. Just as the Power4 chip revitalized IBM's Unix servers on the high end, the company is hoping the Power5 chip can boost the performance of midrange and low-end systems, said Ravi Arimilli, IBM fellow and chief architect, during a recent interview. With chips tuned for each class of Unix server it sells, IBM is looking to keep the heat on Sun Microsystems and stop users from defecting to Intel's Itanium processor.

"The Power5 chip is more of a midrange or low end design that can drive up to the high end and then down to things like blades," Arimilli said. "You don't see that with Power4. Two years between chips is enough time to run away and do some dramatic things."

The Power5 chip will replace the Power4 across the board, but improvements to the chip design and more attention to heat issues will help the new chip scale further down IBM's server line.

In one sense, a mission has been accomplished for IBM. The company set out to make the Power4 chip as a way to increase pressure on market leader Sun Microsystems and ward off new competition from Intel. Analysts often point to the processor, which has been available in servers, such as the p690, since late 2001, as the main reason for a spike in IBM's high end Unix sales. This mission has now carried over to strengthening smaller systems, such as the p630 and p610.

"I think they know that the real low end is gone [to Intel], but the midrange and professional blade type of market could be recaptured [from HP and Sun], said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H. "That is what you are seeing with Power5."

On the other hand, IBM's Unix server team must keep proving itself as the Intel team rolls out servers that use Intel's competing 64-bit Itanium processor. Unlike competitor Hewlett-Packard, IBM does not plan to make Itanium its only answer for 64-bit computing at the high end but instead offer a variety of 64-bit systems. Having Power and Intel systems sitting side by side can trigger internal dilemmas at the company between the Unix or pSeries team and xSeries or Intel team.

"I won't tell you that we haven't had those discussions [to drop Power and go with Itanium]," said Robert Amezcua, pSeries vice president at IBM.  "We looked hard at the future roadmaps, and we believe strongly that we have the answer in Power technology. The [IBM] xSeries team has an Itanium box, and we are out to make sure Itanium doesn't survive."

Amezcua said that each team ultimately does what is right for the company, but that the pSeries team hopes to relegate Itanium to a niche in high performance computing or better yet exterminate the processor altogether.

Always thickening the plot, IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y. , may also throw another lower end system into the mix by adding a server based on Advanced Micro Devices' 64-bit Opteron processor, Arimilli said. Although Arimilli claims that once Power5 arrives, it will be IBM's answer for low end 64-bit computing.

"If Opteron takes off, we will be there, and we will OEM it," Arimilli said. "I think it's a pretty good story for 2003, but it won't be the story in 2004 when Power5 arrives."

Ultimately, the choice of which processor to pick from IBM's arsenal comes down to what type of applications the user needs to run, Eunice said. IBM and Sun, however, are making things more interesting in the midrange and low end by making specialized RISC (reduced instruction set computing) chips as opposed to Intel's more general purpose approach with Itanium and Xeon.

"I think RISC chips have proven they can keep pace with Intel," Eunice said. "It's a wide open, exciting battle at the moment."

One area where IBM's server teams are agreeing on the future is with parts of their software strategy. Both groups are dedicating large amounts of engineering expertise to make sure Linux can run well on servers of all shapes and sizes. In addition to this OS work, IBM is trying to meld its Unix server and Intel server management software to give customers a common look and feel on both sets of systems, Arimilli said.

"The next step I see happening is the pSeries and xSeries converging together," Arimilli said. "Linux on the xSeries and Linux on the pSeries should look seamless to the customer. We also want to make sure things like cluster service management are identical."

Both Linux and the clustering software will play a significant role in IBM's Power5 story, the executives said. On the low end, in particular, IBM sees customers linking together Power5-based blade servers with others using Intel's Xeon processors. The cluster management tools and Linux will work as a common link between these systems.

Even with Power5 out the door, however, IBM won't be able to rest on its laurels with these software plans, according to Eunice.

"There are some elements that are common among Unix and Linux, but there is still an awful lot of divergence," Eunice said. "It will take two to three years to see real progress bringing them together and to deliver the real single look and feel for the management software."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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