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IBM rolls out first Power7 Unix servers

IBM hopes to stem the Unix decline with four IBM Power7-based systems.

IBM rolled out four servers based on its new multicore Power7 processor at an event in New York on Monday, claiming superiority in the shrinking -- but still substantial -- Unix market.

The news comes a week after Oracle Corp. outlined plans to push the Sun Microsystems Sparc-Solaris combo as the foundation for high-end, data center appliances.

Despite confusion about Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Solaris remains the top Unix OS in server shipments. It runs on both x86 and Sparc servers, while IBM AIX and HP-UX run on only Power and Itanium/PA-RISC chips, respectively. In terms of revenue, however, AIX, however, leads the Unix market.

Now, IBM Corp. hopes to challenge such competition and tap the lucrative Unix market with its new Power7 processor.

IT pros running Power-based systems seemed hopeful that the RISC-based Power7 processor could bring needed extra capacity. One said he plans to go to Power7 when the lease rollovers on his company's Power6 systems are due, and another said he hopes to put his company's recent enterprise resource planning (ERP) upgrade on Power7.

Upcoming IBM server models due later this year will include the Power 750, with up to 32 processor cores per system and the Power 780, with 64 cores. The other two models are the 755 and 770. As for pricing, a Power 750 running with four eight-core 3.3 GHz Power 7 chips will cost about $190,000.

The 750 and 755 will ship in volume on Feb. 19; the 770 and 780 on March 16.

Upgrading to IBM Power7 still poses price, memory issues
Richard Siedzik, the director of computer and telecommunications services at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., said the school runs its Oracle-based ERP system from SunGard called SCT Banner on a Power 550Q that has reached end of life. He's leaning toward a Power7 upgrade with Power7, saying the school just needs to ensure that the ERP vendor will certify its product on that platform. Asked whether the university -- an Oracle shop -- would consider migrating to a Sparc-based platform since Oracle has finished its purchase of Sun, Siedzik said moving to Sparc was "not an option."

There is something he'd like to see from IBM Power, though: "Honestly, just bring the price down."

Paul Sikora, the VP of IT transformation at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, plans to upgrade the school's Power6 machines to Power7 when lease rollovers are due in nine months. All of the university's enterprise systems are on Power, running 500 logical partitions (LPARs) across 14 servers. Sikora said the virtualization capabilities in Power and AIX are good --in a legacy environment, the university would probably have at least 100 servers -- but there still is a constraint.

"We have excellent capability in processor virtualization, however, memory is still a constraint," he said.

In addition to the server hardware, IBM announced an upgraded version of IBM Systems Director that will support Power6 and Power7, which is due out March 5. New features of the systems also include the ability to transition from MaxCore to TurboCore mode. In MaxCore mode, the processors take advantage of the 32 processing threads in each chip to run simultaneously. In TurboCore mode, the chip puts the resources from all eight of its cores into four active cores, which is better for database and online transaction processing workloads.

These systems represent the first running the Power7 chip, which comes in four-, six-, and eight-core models with speeds from 3 GHz to 4.1 GHz. The chip uses DDR3 (or double-data rate 3) memory, has expanded cache and includes embedded DRAM. Each 45 nanometer Power7 processor core supports up to four simultaneous multithreading threads. This represents a departure from the dual-core 65 nm Power6, which was more focused on frequency and had speeds up to 5 GHz.

Despite the speed decrease, Scott Handy, the VP of marketing and strategy for Power Systems, said the Power7 chips are faster per core than the Power6. He said that increased speed is partly because Power7 has 32 MB of on-chip Level 3 (L3) cache. With Power6, L3 cache was on a separate die in a multichip module. According to Handy, having the L3 cache embedded on the Power7 chip means faster access to the memory, which results in better performance per core.

In the third quarter of 2009, IBM had 42% Unix market share, according to research firm Gartner Inc. And it experienced contraction in shipments and revenue last year, along with the entire Unix market. The Unix share of overall server revenue decreased from 32% in the first quarter last year to 27% in the third quarter, according to Gartner's numbers.

Handy, however, believes that the Power7 platform will persuade more end users to consolidate their x86 systems to Power. He said that Unix is still a "huge and lucrative" market, especially in developing countries.

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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