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IBM plots road ahead with Power5

By Ashlee Vance, IDG News Service
February 04, 2003 04:26 PM ET

IDG News Service - IBM has plans to make the midrange and low end of its Unix line stronger in a move that could liven up competition within the company between competing chip architectures.

In 2004, IBM will roll out its Power5 processor, which will in some ways complete an overhaul of the company's entire Unix server line. Just as the Power4 chip revitalized IBM's Unix servers on the high end, the company is hoping the Power5 chip can boost the performance of midrange and low end systems, said Ravi Arimilli, IBM fellow and chief architect, during a recent interview. With chips tuned for each class of Unix server it sells, IBM is looking to keep the heat on Sun and stop users from defecting to Intel's Itanium processor.

"The Power5 chip is more of a midrange or low-end design that can drive up to the high end and then down to things like blades," Arimilli said. "You don't see that with Power4. Two years between chips is enough time to run away and do some dramatic things."

The Power5 chip will replace the Power4 across the board, but improvements to the chip design and more attention to heat issues will help the new chip scale further down IBM's server line.

In one sense, a mission has been accomplished for IBM. The company set out to make the Power4 chip as a way to increase pressure on market leader Sun and ward off new competition from Intel. Analysts often point to the processor, which has been available in servers, such as the p690, since late 2001, as the main reason for a spike in IBM's high-end Unix sales. This mission has now carried over to strengthening smaller systems, such as the p630 and p610.

"I think they know that the real low end is gone (to Intel), but the midrange and professional blade type of market could be recaptured (from HP and Sun)," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. "That is what you are seeing with Power5."

On the other hand, IBM's Unix server team must keep proving itself as the Intel team rolls out servers that use Intel's competing 64-bit Itanium processor. Unlike competitor HP, IBM does not plan to make Itanium its only answer for 64-bit computing at the high end, but instead offer a variety of 64-bit systems. Having Power and Intel systems sitting side by side can trigger internal dilemmas at the company between the Unix or pSeries team and xSeries or Intel team.

"I won't tell you that we haven't had those discussions" to drop Power and go with Itanium, said Robert Amezcua, pSeries vice president at IBM. "We looked hard at the future roadmaps, and we believe strongly that we have the answer in Power technology. The (IBM) xSeries team has an Itanium box, and we are out to make sure Itanium doesn't survive."

Amezcua said that each team ultimately does what is right for the company, but that the pSeries team hopes to relegate Itanium to a niche in high-performance computing or better yet exterminate the processor altogether.

Always thickening the plot, IBM may also throw another lower-end system into the mix by adding a server based on Advanced Micro Devices' 64-bit Opteron processor, Arimilli said. Arimilli claims that once Power5 arrives, it will be IBM's answer for low-end 64-bit computing.

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