IBM to Sell Linux-Only Regatta Servers?

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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

IBM Corp last week announced that it has delivered the AIX 5L Release 5.2 version of its Unix operating system for its pSeries RISC-Unix servers,

writes Timothy Prickett-Morgan.

While most Linux customers don't care much about what IBM does or does not do in the pSeries line, my sources at the company say that IBM might be readying a set of Linux-only Power4-based "Regatta" servers to take on the Unix installed base - including Big Blue's own AIX base. This would be a very interesting development, indeed.

IBM already supports Linux within logical partitions on the four-way pSeries 630 "Regatta-LE", the 16-way pSeries 670 "Regatta-M" and 32-way pSeries "Regatta-H" servers. With AIX 5L 5.2, which starts shipping next week, the pSeries Regatta line of machines gets support for dynamic logical partitions, which can be configured with AIX 5.1, AIX 5.2, or Linux 2.4. These dynamic logical partitions can be based on a single processor, as little as 256MB of main memory, and a single I/O adapter card that talks to disk drives.

This week, the pSeries line has also been improved to include dynamic processor sparing in 16-way pSeries 670 and 32-way pSeries 690 Regatta servers. This capability allows customers who acquire Capacity Upgrade on Demand (CUoD) configurations (which have extra processors in the box to cover peak loads) to permanently and transparently activate CUoD processors, in lieu of a failing or failed processor, in these Regatta machines. Your run-of-the-mill Linux servers don't have such partitioning or sparing capabilities, and IBM is well aware of this.

According to Mike Harrell, product marketing manager of the pSeries line within IBM's Server Group, the company is readying a set of new Linux-based pSeries servers for delivery before the end of the year, and will launch more machines in the first quarter of 2003. He would not elaborate on what these machines might be, but he did say this: "We are getting in position to be the only major Unix vendor that will run Linux from bottom to top on its servers."

To my ear, that means Linux-only pSeries machines. Such machines are in keeping with IBM's past marketing practices of using platform distinctions to set different pricing levels on the same products. The pSeries-AIX and iSeries-OS/400 platforms are based on essentially the same hardware platform, but IBM charges more for the same processors, memory, disks, and other features in the iSeries line than it does on the pSeries line. This is, to a certain extent, fair since IBM bundles in a lot of software, including a version of its DB2 relational database management system, in the iSeries machines.

But IBM is also engaging in a little price gouging, too, because it has a monopoly on the OS/400 platform that it does not have in the Unix world. IBM even has a Linux-only version of the iSeries, a Domino-only version, and a version that does not support its old 5250 green-screen protocol. In all cases, IBM is trying to promote the iSeries as a platform for new workloads, and so IBM is putting a governor on certain OS/400 features and slashing the prices of the machines to try to stimulate sales.

So IBM might take a page out of the iSeries sales book and create special Linux-only pSeries servers it could sell into accounts that might be looking at installing Linux on iron based on chips from Intel Corp or the few other platforms that support native Linux, and this would not be surprising at all. It might make good sense, particularly among early Linux adopters like research institutions, government organizations, entertainment companies, retail giants, and other users of parallel supercomputer clusters who are increasingly looking at Linux for their applications instead of one of the many different flavors of Unix that are available.

In any event, IBM is known to be readying its next "Regatta-M" midrange server for the pSeries line, along with Power4-II "GQ" processors, for a November launch. IBM could launch versions of these new machines just for Linux, and could similarly create a whole Regatta line- pSeries 630, 650, 670, 690--that runs Linux in partitions with up to four or eight processors per partition (the maximum scalability of Linux). IBM could put microcode in the machines that would prevent AIX from running on these machines, and then chop prices on the iron to attack the value-conscious Linux market with very powerful 64-bit RISC-Linux servers.

Once Hewlett Packard Co and Intel get the kinks out of the 64-bit Itanium processors, HP will be able to do the same thing with its top-end Unix iron. But right now, the PA-RISC processors from HP do not support native Linux, and HP has not moved its HP 9000 line completely over to Itanium, which can run either HP-UX Unix or Linux.

Sun Microsystems Inc is dabbling in Linux at the low end of its server line, and can in theory run Linux in the dynamic domains (like logical partitions, but not as flexible) that are part of Solaris 8 and Solaris 9 running on its SunFire servers, but it has not made the choice to offer Linux-only versions of its UltraSparc-III servers, and it is unlikely to.

IBM has kept the exact pricing and features of the new Power4-II processors a pretty good secret, but based on advances in chip-making processes, cranking the clock speed to 1.5GHz and 1.6GHz on the Power4-IIs from the current 1.1GHz and 1.3GHz speeds is a reasonable assumption, which has been backed up by rumors that have been circulating in the past few weeks.

I've also heard that IBM has been able to crank up the clock speed on the Power4-II processors to 1.8GHz. Another source told me that IBM is offering the Power4-IIs at 1.2GHz or 1.45GHz speeds in some pSeries machines. If these machines were sold as Linux boxes, for either technical or commercial applications, at Lintel prices, they would be screamers on performance and they would sell like hotcakes. IBM could, in very short order, sell more Linux-based Regatta machines than it does either AIX-based or OS/400-based machines, particularly for low-end configurations.
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