Today, in a surprise announcement, IBM will unveil a new family of servers based on its POWER5 processors. The family--known as eServer OpenPower--is a line of Linux servers that offers many mainframe-class capabilities at prices that rival those of Intel servers. While the eServer OpenPower family will compete with systems from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems, they may also prove attractive to existing POWER server customers.
While the eServer OpenPower series will contain multiple models, IBM is announcing only the first member of the family today: the one- to four-way Model 720. From the outside, the Model 720 looks virtually identical to an eServer i5 Model 520 or p5 Model 520. Like these servers, the Model 720 is 4U in height and comes in rack-mounted and tower configurations. It uses the same 1.5 GHz and 1.65 GHz processors as its POWER5 cousins. It also offers the same number of PCI-X card slots and disk drive bays. However, since the Model 720 accommodates up to four processors, it can house twice the memory (a full 64 GB) of the 1- to 2-way Model 520s. The new server also possesses most of the reliability and serviceability features of the eServer i5 and p5. These include an integrated service processor, Chipkill memory, and First Failure Data Capture.
Despite these similarities, the eServer OpenPower Model 720 differs from its counterparts in several ways. First, it runs only Linux distributions; customers can purchase SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 directly from IBM with their order. Second, IBM is shipping the virtualization capabilities that come standard on the eServer i5 and p5--including support for logical partitions (LPARs), micropartitions, virtual LANs, and virtual I/O subsystems--as a separate package for OpenPower models. When the package becomes available sometime during the fourth quarter of this year, Model 720 owners can purchase it for a flat fee of $2,000. Speaking of delivery schedules, IBM will start shipping the eServer OpenPower Model 720 on September 24.
The most important difference between the eServer OpenPower and its i5 and p5 brethren is the price tag. IBM is selling an entry-level Model 720 with a single 1.5 GHz processor, 512 MB of memory, and a 36 GB disk drive for $5,000. Prices for four-way models start at around $18,000, depending on the configuration. At these prices, the Model 720 competes head to head with servers running 64-bit processors from Intel and AMD as well as with servers running Intel's 32-bit Xeon chips.
To get an idea of how competitive the eServer OpenPower really is, consider the fact that a four-way Model 720 supports 4,700 simultaneous Web server connections on the SPECweb99_SSL benchmark. That is 51% more connections than a Hewlett-Packard Integrity rx4640 running on four Intel Itanium processors, 2% more than Sun's four-way V40Z running four AMD Opteron chips, and 85% more than a Dell PowerEdge 6650 running four Xeon processors. In most cases, however, these four-way rivals cost more on a list price basis than a comparable eServer OpenPower Model 720. This may also prove to be true for street prices, though that will not be clear until IBM starts delivering the Model 720 to resellers.
IBM intends to compete aggressively with Intel and AMD servers in several key solution areas. These include file/print serving, Web serving, messaging, security, and solutions for retailers, branch banks, and life sciences firms. In the coming months, Big Blue will also roll out solution packages for workload consolidation and business intelligence. Over time, the OpenPower family will gain additional models. For instance, IBM intends to ship a thinner (2U high) one- to two-way model during the first quarter of 2005. That model should be ideally suited for Linux clusters that run technical computing workloads such as petroleum exploration and financial risk management.
While IBM may be targeting its competitors with the eServer OpenPower family, it may find that owners of its xSeries and current POWER servers take interest in the newcomer as well. That is because OpenPower servers will probably offer the best Linux price/performance for many IBM customers, especially those who run multiple Linux workloads. Consider the fact that for around $5,000 you can buy a one-way eServer OpenPower Model 720 that has about the same Linux performance as an eServer i5 Model 520-0903 Standard Edition that costs $33,000. For an additional $2,000, you can equip that OpenPower Model 720 with most of the LPAR and virtualization features of the Model 520. Given this price disparity, many iSeries owners who run Linux applications should at least request an eServer OpenPower quote and evaluate it along with any iSeries upgrades that they are considering.
Of course, many or even most iSeries customers will still have good reasons to maintain their Linux workloads on an eServer i5. The eServer i5 has capabilities that the OpenPower lineup lacks, including an I/O subsystem with greater bandwidth and Capacity on Demand (CoD) hardware. The eServer i5 also allows IT shops to manage all of their workloads from a single, consistent interface. That could reduce operational costs compared to running OS/400 and Linux workloads on separate POWER5 servers. Still, the eServer OpenPower is an option that serious Linux users should examine closely. To do otherwise would be to leave important options--and perhaps a little money--on the table.