Midrange Insights: AS/400e Bumblebees Buzz on Domino, but NT Servers Still Sting

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When IBM announced the AS/400e “Bumblebee” Model 170 Dedicated Servers for Domino in August, the company made considerable noise reminding journalists and industry analysts that the team in Rochester did not create the Bumblebees to compete against NT servers running Domino, although the new machines do offer considerably better price/performance on Domino workloads than regular red-stripe AS/400e servers. Ever since the AS/400 started adopting client/server and UNIX technologies in the mid- 1990s, IBM has claimed that it did not add those features so its machines could compete better with UNIX servers, and then, Windows NT servers. The intent behind all of the technology extensions, explained IBM, was to make it easier for application software houses to create AS/400 versions of their UNIX applications. This is a nice story, and it certainly has some truth, but it does not mean that IBM was not also changing the AS/400 so it could better compete against the threat of UNIX servers in the 1990s. IBM may say the Bumblebees were not designed to compete against NT servers running Domino, but that statement may not be the whole truth. AS/400 Business Partners, who want to make good margins selling AS/400 equipment as opposed to zip on PC servers, know full well that 75 to 80 percent of Domino/Notes seats out there in the world are supported from NT servers. They undoubtedly explained to IBM that customers didn’t want to buy a full- blown AS/400, with all of its OS/400 features and integrated DB2/400 database management system, just to plop Domino on the machine and ignore all that software. Rather than pull out the DB2/400 database and lots of the guts of OS/400 to create a stripped down OS/400 for the Bumblebees, IBM took its usual tack and created a line of AS/400s that ran Domino workloads like regular 170s did but that had crippled client/server and interactive performance to offset the lower price that IBM charges for these machines. IBM’s motivation in creating these machines, which AS/400 General Manager Tom Jarosh jokingly christened the “Bumblebees,” was clearly to satisfy the requests of AS/400 Business Partners, who are scrambling to make their sales in a very tough environment as 1999 winds down. But Business Partners needed the Bumblebees so they could compete against NT servers—even if it ended up being the NT people inside their own
companies—no matter how much IBM denies that.

Whatever IBM’s intentions, the fact remains that the Model 170 Bumblebees are a great deal for AS/400 customers who want to support Domino (and essentially nothing else) and who also want something more reliable than a PC server running Windows NT

4.0. The Bumblebees will be particularly appealing to those companies that don’t know anything about the AS/400 except that it supports Domino and is more reliable than a typical PC server. A significant number of Domino customers are willing to give the new server a chance—not enough to change the momentum behind NT-Domino sales, but enough to help IBM shore up its anemic AS/400 hardware sales in 1999. In Lotus’ latest Domino sales survey (fourth quarter of 1998), 28 percent of companies deploying Domino chose the AS/400 as their server platform. And a quarter of the AS/400 machines that were sold for supporting Domino were sold to customers who had never bought an AS/400 before. With over $500 million in Domino-related AS/400 hardware sales in 1998 (about a sixth of the estimated $3.3 billion sales for the platform for the year), IBM obviously wants to do everything in its power to give Business Partners the platforms they need to push Domino.

Of course, the bottom-line street price of various platforms is what drives sales more than reliability or scalability these days. Even a few years ago, this was not true. But AS/400, UNIX, and PC servers now have more than enough power to support the kinds and sizes of workloads that are typical of most midrange shops. While reliability is important, as the AS/400’s impressive foray into NT’s Domino territory last year shows, it is becoming less of an issue as PC servers improve in quality, as system mirroring for high availability becomes commonplace thanks to ever-cheaper iron, and as Windows NT gets to be more stable. (I’m sure that Windows 2000 Server, Advanced Server, and Data Center Server will reverse that trend, at least in the short term.) Similarly, as processor clock speeds have, with the exception of the AS/400, topped 400 MHz, 500 MHz, and now 700 MHz with the new Alpha EV7 processor from Compaq, the need for big symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) servers has dwindled. Companies don’t double the number of end users they have each year; they grow at 10 to 20 percent or not at all. Most AS/400
shops—and indeed, most of the small and medium businesses (SMBs) in the world—have less than a thousand employees and could get by with a very modest 170 Invader for supporting Domino for messaging. And an AS/400e 7XX Northstar server would be more than enough for these SMBs to run a full suite of Domino applications using groupware and workflow features and anything else they can think of—even a little Java. Most SMBs, who perhaps wrongfully believe that they won’t go out of business if they lose their email for a day or two, tend to shop based on price. They react badly to sticker shock, and they won’t usually consider an AS/400 for their workloads because they believe that it is too expensive. They don’t want to buy a Lexus; they want to buy a Chevy, even if it breaks down once in a while, because they need their money for other things. So it is vital to IBM and its AS/400 Business Partners to get machines like the Bumblebees out there. Any number of these SMBs are next year’s big AS/400 server buyers, for one thing. For another, if they are happy with Domino on the AS/400, they might start thinking about moving their other workloads to the machines. Every little bit helps make the AS/400 a stronger business.

Suffice it to say that platform pricing is important. Figure 1 shows the best price/performance offered by any midrange-class machine in the AS/400, UNIX, or Windows NT server markets since early 1998. These lines show the best bang for the buck in those machine classes for machines that can support at least a thousand Domino Mail users. As you can see, there are not a lot of data points, mainly because vendors test only a few machines on the NotesBench workload every time they refresh their product lines with new processors. Despite the thinness of the data, the trend line is clear: AS/400s have effectively caught up with the best price/performance ratings of UNIX servers (from IBM and Sun Microsystems, as it turns out) thanks to the Bumblebee Dedicated Servers for Domino. Both UNIX and AS/400 servers are in the $15 or less per Domino Mail user bracket. Larger UNIX servers, like the RS/6000 S70 and H70 Northstar servers from IBM, can cost twice as much per user to support many thousands of end users, and similarly large AS/400e 7XX servers can cost three to four times the amount per user compared to the Bumblebee servers because processing power and memory are that

much more expensive at the high end of IBM’s midrange server lines. You will note that even with the new 170 Bumblebee servers, IBM has not matched the price/performance of PC servers running Domino Mail on Windows NT. This is why IBM wants to convince the people in the AS/400 trade press that it was not trying to meet or beat NT servers on Domino performance. If IBM was trying, it has missed the mark by a long shot yet again.

By the way, IBM says it will not provide NotesBench benchmarks for the new Bumblebees. The company says that it will use the Model 170-2292 NotesBench result from last year to extrapolate performance and configurations to give customers a sense of the relative value of the new Bumblebees. IBM has not, to date, done that, so I went ahead and did it myself on your behalf. I’ve repriced the Model 170-2292 Invader configuration IBM tested last July in the wake of IBM’s Model 170 memory and disk price cuts in August. That benchmark was performed using Domino 4.6, and I’ve configured the Bumblebees using Domino 4.6 as well. With Domino 5.0, IBM gave customers the option of installing just the Domino Mail Server (for $695) rather than the entire Application Server (which includes the Mail Server as well as workflow and application servers and which costs $1,795). It is my belief that the Mail performance of Domino 4.6 and Domino
5.0 is virtually identical, which is one of the reasons that IBM/Lotus has beefed up the Mail benchmark test with more complex and longer messages with R5. This makes direct comparisons between machines running Domino 4.6 and 5.0 impossible. As we go to press, IBM is the only vendor using the new R5 test and has done so only on its Netfinity and S/390 servers. For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that R5 users are a little more sophisticated and leave it at that.

According to my estimates, reasonably configured Bumblebees cost from $13 to $17 per Domino Mail user, with the larger 170-2409, which can support 4,300 Domino Mail users, having the best bang for the buck, and the smaller 170-2407, which can support 1,300 users, having the poorest. Those prices, by the way, include a 20 percent discount off of IBM’s U.S. list, so don’t think you’re going to wiggle IBM down much on price. These Bumblebee prices are considerably lower than the $25 per user IBM is charging (again, with a 20 percent discount already tallied in) for regular 170 Invader servers. (The August Model 170 price changes shaved the cost per Domino Mail user by $2 to $25 per Mail user.) By using only the R5 Mail Server, customers can shave from $.50 to $1 per Mail user off the cost of a configured Bumblebee machine.

In the UNIX space, Sun Microsystems is pretty much setting the pace on the NotesBench test and has been consistently well below both IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HP) in its per-user costs. As Figure 2 shows, the latest Sun tests on an Enterprise 450 (with four 400 MHz UltraSPARCII processors) show it more or less in the same power and price class as IBM’s Netfinity PC servers (with four 500-MHz Pentium III Xeon processors) running Domino Mail Server on Windows NT. IBM’s own S70 and H70 Northstar servers can best this midrange Sun box—Sun has 64-way processors that could support tens of thousands of Domino Mail users—but cost around $20 per Domino Mail user. (IBM does have low-end UNIX servers using old 32-bit processors that offer better price/performance, but these machines are dead-end boxes.) Less impressive NT servers than the top-of-the-line IBM Netfinity 7000 M10 can nonetheless handle up to twice as many Domino mail users as the Bumblebee servers—and do so for a mere $6 to $7 per user. It is interesting to note that the Netfinity 5500 M20 (which has two 500 MHz Pentium III Xeons) could handle almost as many users as the Netfinity 7000 M10, which had twice

as many of the same Intel processors and four times the L2 cache memory. The two-way 5500 M20 also did the work for almost half the cost. The point is, buying more processors doesn’t always mean getting more work done. An awful lot depends on tuning.

IBM made a lot of noise recently about how its G5 series of S/390 mainframes offered the best scalability on the NotesBench test. A 9672 mainframe with ten 500-MHz G5 series processors—that’s last year’s model—was able to support 32,000 Domino Mail users. IBM provided the specs of the mainframe used in the test, but it didn’t have the courage to provide pricing for the configuration to show a per-user cost. Just for

amusement’s sake, and to let AS/400 customers know that they are, comparatively speaking, being treated well by IBM, I talked to people who track mainframe pricing and ginned up the S/390 costs to support the Domino workloads. As best as anyone can figure, the S/390 with 16 GB of main memory would cost about $3.4 million on the street these days. The 2.5 TB of disk capacity used in the test (whether it consisted of the old RAMAC disks IBM used in the test or the new Shark arrays IBM just announced), plus ESCON adapters and other miscellaneous hardware, would bring the price tag up to around $5 million. With special OS/390 and Domino R5 pricing for 48 months (which is equivalent to a basic one-time charge for OS/390 systems software) and another 20 percent discount off the top because this would be the biggest single Domino-server installation in the world, the total S/390 cost would come to about $6.7 million. When you do the math, that comes to $211 per Domino Mail user, which is ten times as costly as a high-end RS/6000 and almost four times as expensive as AS/400e 7XX Northstar servers that can do almost as much work as that mainframe. At those numbers, I am surprised IBM has even 300 Domino customers on S/390s. They must simply not care what they pay for servers anymore because these numbers, however ridiculous they sound to midrange customers, are so much lower than what they are used to paying that it seems like the bargain of the century.

$160

$140

$120

$100

$80

$60

$40

$20

$0

AS/400

UNIX

NT

Jan-98 Feb-98 Mar-98 Apr-98 May-98 Jun-98 Jul-98 Aug-98 Sep-98 Oct-98 Nov-98 Dec-98 Jan-99 Feb-99 Mar-99 Apr-99 May-99 Jun-99 Jul-99 Aug-99 Sep-99 Oct-99

Figure 1: In the race to deliver low-cost Domino Mail Server support, the AS/400 is catching up.

Cost per Domino Mail User

Source: NotesBench Consortium, Midrange Computing

IBM AS/400e S40-2208 IBM AS/400e 170-2292 IBM AS/400e 170-2407 IBM AS/400e 170-2408 IBM AS/400e 170-2409

IBM 9672-YX6* IBM RS/6000 S70 IBM RS/6000 H70 SUN Enterprise 450 IBM Netfinity 7000 M10* IBM Netfinity 5500 M20*

IBM Netfinity 5000*

IBM Netfinity 3000 *Using R5 NotesBench test.

All others are R4.6

$58

$25

$17

$14

AS/400 Versus

Other Servers

$13

$211

Source: NotesBench Consortium, Midrange Computing

$21

$20

$12

$11

$6

$6

$7

5,000 10,000 15,000 20,000 25,000 30,000 35,000

Figure 2: The new AS/400e Bumblebee servers stack up pretty well against competing products.

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Lotus Domino Mail Users (Cost per User Shown)

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