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IBM Battles Rivals for Server Workloads

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The last two weeks have been interesting ones for users of iSeries and pSeries systems. As IBM launched a fleet of System p5 servers based on the newest POWER5+ chips, Microsoft sought to woo software vendors away from the POWER architecture. However, a new IBM benchmark could demonstrate the ability of the iSeries to run the Web-based applications that frequently end up on Windows servers. That said, let's take a closer look at these stories in their order of mention.

IBM Scales Up System p5

On Valentine's Day, IBM showed some love for its UNIX and Linux customers by announcing eight new System p5 servers, many of which sport the fastest POWER5+ processors. The announcement was IBM's way of assuring that the System p5 remains a price/performance leader against rival servers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems. The list of new models includes these:

  • The System p5 Model 185 Express, an entry-level server that comes with one or two PowerPC 970 processors at a price that starts at less than $3,000
  • The Models 510 and 510Q, two entry-level, rack-mounted POWER5+ servers that come in one- to four-way configurations
  • The Models 520 and 520Q, which refresh the old pSeries Model 520 with POWER5+ processors and come in one- to four-way configurations
  • The Model 560Q, a four-processor module that can be used to create four-, eight-, and sixteen-way systems
  • A refreshed version of the Model 570 that offers anywhere from 2 to 16 POWER5+ processors running at 1.9 GHz or 2.2 GHz

If you are wondering what the "Q" stands for on some of the new models, it means "Quad-Core Module," or QCM. Servers that bear the "Q" moniker use processor modules that contain four POWER5+ cores rather than the usual one or two. This is accomplished by putting two dual-core POWER5+ processors onto a module. The Q models run at slower clock speeds than their dual-core counterparts, but they deliver greater overall performance because they contain twice as many cores. Moreover, Q models deliver better price/performance than single- and dual-core models with comparable performance. This is one reason that IBM is offering value-priced Express configurations of the 510Q, 520Q, and 560Q.

While the Q models offer great hardware price/performance, they create a software pricing conundrum for IBM. At present, the computer giant prices much of its software for POWER servers on a "per processor core" basis. That strategy works well when each core has roughly equal performance. However, since QCM cores run at clock speeds that are significantly slower than those for non-QCM cores, it seems unfair to charge the same per-core prices for software running on Q models. To address this problem, IBM's Software Group will announce a promotion during the second quarter of this year in which it will offer per-core software prices that are as much as 50% lower for Q models than for single- and dual-core configurations. While this will be a promotion rather than a permanent price change, sources inside IBM have told me that the promotion is part of a long-term strategy to keep its software prices competitive.

Knowing this, I believe that IBM will eventually institute software pricing policies that keep per-core charges lower for quad-core models. This could become important for iSeries users, as future System i5 (or more likely, System i6) models may include quad-core as well as dual- and single-core processor modules running at different clock speeds.

Microsoft Launches NXT Program

Several weeks ago, Microsoft quietly launched a program known as NXT that helps independent software vendors (ISVs) port their solutions to the company's Windows and SQL Server offerings. Among the ISVs that Microsoft is targeting with NXT, iSeries vendors figure prominently. That could increase tensions between the iSeries Division and the software giant.

The program, which Microsoft characterizes as a pilot project, provides ISVs with benefits worth as much as $100,000 that include free software, technical support, and marketing assistance. The program also includes porting assistance that is provided by 12 "NXT partners." Two of these partners—ASNA and Symphony Services—have significant experience porting iSeries applications.

While NXT is a clear attempt on Microsoft's part to woo away iSeries and other ISVs, it is not without precedent. IBM has used its PartnerWorld Industry Networks and ISV Advantage programs to coax Windows ISVs to port their products to its middleware and operating systems, including OS/400. In addition, IBM's Innovation Centers for Business Partners assist ISVs in the porting effort. In a sense, NXT is Microsoft's answer to IBM's conversion campaigns. However, that won't make it any less irritating to the iSeries Division.

A New iSeries Benchmark in the Wings?

In the early 1990s, it was RAMP-C. Then, along came Commercial Processing Workload (CPW). Now, IBM is telling customers about a way to measure iSeries performance that it calls the Trade Benchmark. While nobody in IBM is saying it, the benchmark—which has been used internally for several years—may become one of the standard ways that the company measures the performance of its servers. That could make it easier to compare the performance of the iSeries to that of its rivals.

The Trade Benchmark consists of applications that simulate the trading of stocks via the Internet. The applications, which run on IBM's WebSphere Application Server, generate transactions that are longer and require more memory than transactions generated by the CPW benchmark. As such, the Trade Benchmark may be a better indicator of a server's performance when running the sophisticated Web applications that many iSeries users are deploying today.

If your company wants to run such applications on a System i5, you should consider using the Trade Benchmark to determine which model will meet your performance requirements. In some cases, you will find that the new benchmark paints a different performance picture than CPW results. For instance, consider the new System i5 Model 520-0975, which sports a POWER5+ processor and cranks out 1,200 CPW on batch workloads. This CPW rating is 20% greater than that of the Model 520-0901 that the new server replaces. However, the Trade Benchmark rating for the Model 520-0975 is a whopping 56% greater than that of its predecessor. That is because the 520-0975 has something the 520-0901 lacks—a 36 MB L3 cache. The Trade Benchmark applications use the cache to keep data closer to the processors. This makes the 520-0975 much faster than its predecessor when running memory-intensive Web applications.

Someday, the Trade Benchmark (or something like it) could become a standard rating for the iSeries as workloads on the server become increasingly Web-based and sophisticated. Since the benchmark can run on multiple operating systems, it could also help companies compare the price/performance of the iSeries to other servers when running Web-based workloads. For the moment, IBM is not publishing Trade Benchmark figures for its servers. However, if you ask for the figures or for the benchmark applications themselves, you will probably get them. Keep that in mind when you are evaluating a potential System i5 purchase or upgrade.

Lee Kroon is a Senior Industry Analyst for Andrews Consulting Group, a firm that helps mid-sized companies manage business transformation through technology. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lee Kroon
Lee Kroon is a Senior Industry Analyst for Andrews Consulting Group, a firm that helps mid-sized companies manage business transformation through technology.
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