IBM unleashes 256-core Unix server, its biggest yet

The company leads its rivals in "raw performance," one analyst said

IBM has strengthened its hand in the Unix business with new systems based on its Power7 processors, including a server for large enterprises that scales to 256 cores.

The Power 795 is IBM's biggest Unix server to date. It's aimed at companies that run large-scale database applications or want to consolidate multiple Unix or Linux workloads onto a single system using IBM's PowerVM virtualization software.

IBM also launched several low-end Power7-based servers, each with one or two processors. Combined with the mid-range systems it launched earlier this year, the new servers round out IBM's Power7 line-up from top to bottom.

All the new systems are offered with Linux or IBM's AIX or i operating systems (i is the new name for IBM's i5/OS). They'll compete with Unix servers from Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, which acquired Sun's hardware business when it bought the company earlier this year.

Few organizations need a box as big as the 795 to run a single, large application, and IBM expects most customers to use it for consolidation projects, which can help reduce energy use and conserve data center floor space, said Steve Sibley, IBM's worldwide marketing manager for Power systems.

The box can be carved into 254 partitions today, and IBM has said it will increase that number to 1,000 next year when it completes the required testing. "You may need a firmware update to do that, but right now we don't anticipate customers having to do anything," Sibley said.

The 795 has 8TB of main memory and uses eight processor "books," as IBM calls them, each with four Power7 processors. The chips each have eight processor cores, up from two on the Power6, and IBM says the new processors are compatible with Power6-based servers. That means customers can slide Power7 books into an existing Power 695 chassis without any other upgrades required, Sibley said.

IBM is launching the systems into a soft market. Unix server sales have been in decline, with revenue dropping 22 percent between 2008 and 2009, to $13.1 billion, according to IDC. The analyst company expects the market to pick up slightly this year and next.

IBM has been doing better than its rivals in those poor conditions. It sold the most Unix gear in each of the last three years, according to IDC, expanding its share of revenue to 40.3 percent in 2009, compared to 26.2 percent for HP and 25.3 percent for Sun.

The new systems could strengthen its position further. "On a hardware basis, it's pretty clear IBM is in the lead in raw performance," according to Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting.

Still, IBM's growth came in a period of turmoil for its rivals, said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. HP has been transitioning customers from its PA-RISC chip to Intel's Itanium processor, and Sun's future was clouded for a long time during talk of an acquisition.

After some delays, HP has now launched new servers based on Itanium 2, and Oracle is finally discussing a road map for Sun's hardware business. That puts them in a better position competitively. Still, Bozman said, "IBM is in a very strong position."

Even IBM doesn't know exactly how customers will respond to the 256-core system. 'This is the first time we've gone from 64 cores to 256, so it will be interesting to see the demand," Sibley said. A handful of customers have applications that are large enough to run across a entire system, "but we do see hundreds of partitions being the norm," he said.

The company offers a "capacity on demand" payment model, so customers can order a fully loaded system and pay for the processors as they are activated.

IBM didn't provide a price for the 795, except to say it starts at $500,000. Sibley said customers end up getting about twice the number of processor cores on a Power7 system as they would for a Power 6 system of the same price.

For low-end servers, IBM disables some of the Power7 cores to offer four- and six-core chips. Those processors are offered in the Power 710, 720, 730 and 740 systems, which were also launched Tuesday in one- and two-socket rackmount and tower formats. The servers start from $6,385, Sibley said.

The company also launched a new Smart Analytics system, the 7600, which comes preinstalled with IBM's DB2 data warehousing software on a system built for data analytics. It's the Power7 upgrade of a Power 6 system IBM launched in April.

Tags serversIBMhardware systemsHigh-end servers

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service

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