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Rumble in the data center jungle: Linux vs. Unix

Big Blue is shaping its entry-level server, the OpenPower 710, into a silver bullet aimed squarely at the steady incursion of x86 servers into the data center. Now the question is, how good is their aim?

With the release of the OpenPower 710 into the wilds of the data center, IBM is hoping to siphon away some of the Unix users who are becoming increasingly interested in switching to an x86 offering from competitors Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

Based on the Power5 chip set, the 710 may be the younger sibling of the four-way OpenPower 720 launched last October. However, IBM has big aspirations for the entry-level server, which it has labeled as an alternative that will outperform other Linux servers from HP and Sun.

In addition, [IBM's] continuing strategy of driving a Linux wedge into its rivals' key markets appears to be paying off.
Charles King
Principal AnalystPund-IT Research

Gordon Haff, an analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., said in a perfect world IBM would really like to compete head-to-head with x86 but the OpenPower series will focus on applications such as SAP and others traditionally seen on Unix.

According to IBM, over 900 independent software vendor (ISV) industry applications, such as Sybase, SAP and others, are already certified on the OpenPower platform.

"In general, IBM's thrust with OpenPower is to sort of capture what you might call the 'high end' of Linux applications ... some of the targets are on Web servers but more so with applications servers and high performance computing," Haff said.

Haff said IBM goes after Sun directly with this release for two reasons: Sun's issues as a company at the present time and the unsuccessful plays that both HP and Sun have incurred in the entry-level Linux space.

As far as a head-to-head comparison goes, Haff said in the scheme of things, the 710 is priced competitively with x86 offerings from HP and Sun, but the true value of the new server is in virtualization and performance.

Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, said IBM is positioning the 710 for a couple of specific markets. First, it sees the 710 as a direct challenger to low-end RISC-based systems, such as Sun's V20z. Second, the company is aiming the 710 at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) as a solution for consolidating separate Web, file and print, directory, firewall, and e-mail server workloads.

King said the 710 was an intriguing play by Big Blue, in that the server provides an "interesting answer" to a critical issue every Unix vendor faces -- how to counter the ongoing incursion of x86-based servers in the data center.

IBM's response to this incursion, King said, is to first create an aggressively priced server aimed directly at your competitor's sweetest markets -- Sun's presence in the financial market, for example.

"Second, IBM leveraged the Power5's enhanced micro-partitioning capabilities to deliver a consolidation solution whose price/performance should give pause to even the most ardent x86 fan," King said.

King said the 710 appears to be capable of taking on Sun's V20z, since the Power5-based pSeries servers have demonstrated technical excellence since their introduction early in 2004.

"In addition, [IBM's] continuing strategy of driving a Linux wedge into its rivals' key markets appears to be paying off," King said.

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SMB nut tough to crack

IBM has offered up the 710 as an entry-level server, but the future is still hazy as far as how the server will work as a consolidation play, King said. A key component could be the participation of ISVs, he said.

"While the price/performance argument seems particularly compelling, SMBs are a tough crowd, especially when new or unfamiliar platforms are involved," King said. "Given SMBs' often-limited IT budgets and staff, asking them to undertake significant hardware and/or software migrations can be a tall order."

However, IBM has done very well with lending the SMB server consolidation process a "kindly air" by launching familiar applications and ISVs, King said. The number of ISVs has increased nearly 40% since the introduction of OpenPower.

"We expect initial demand for the OpenPower 710 among SMBs to reside mainly among companies already familiar with IBM or Linux. However, we believe that if the OpenPower 710 delivers as IBM advertises, its success will likely extend to a much broader SMB audience," King said.

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