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IBM's High-End Power5+ Launch Set for July 25

Published: July 5, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Rather than try to steal the show and make its Power5+ server announcements on the same day that Intel is expected to roll out the much-awaited "Montecito" dual-core Itanium processors, IBM is shooting for the last word at the high-end of the market and is launching its biggest Power5+ Unix-based servers on July 25. IBM's announcements will also follow those of Sun Microsystems by two weeks.

Sun is expected to flesh out its Opteron-based "Galaxy" server line on July 11, with the possibility of a crank on the clock for the UltraSparc-IV+ processors used in the Sun Fire server line, while Montecito debuts on July 18 from Intel and will be promoted aggressively by Hewlett-Packard in the Unix space.

By holding off on its announcements until July 25, Big Blue will be able to create marketing materials and sales pitches to counter those put forth by Sun and HP, which are its main rivals in the Unix server space. And, that gives IBM that much more time to ratchet up the yields in the Power5+ processor and thereby get machines into volume more quickly. According to IBM documents, the high-end System p5 590 and 595 machines using the new Power5+ multi-chip modules (MCMs) are expected to be generally available in August. That availability date, which is based on somewhat stale information in the IBM documents from several months ago, could be outdated. For all anyone knows, IBM will be able to ship these machines immediately; clock speeds could also be higher than these documents suggest, too.

IBM was originally expected to roll out the Power5+ processors, which use a 90 nanometer process, by the end of 2005, but the rollout has taken more time. IBM has never explained why, much less has it ever formally declared or conceded that having the Power5+ chips out across the pSeries server line--now called the System p--was its original plan. But, everyone in the industry is pretty sure (thanks to product roadmaps) that this was the plan. Delays are normal in the server racket, and if anything, IBM's ability to keep to a tight schedule with the Power4, Power4+, and Power5 processor launches in the past five years has been abnormal. The Itanium line has experienced huge delays, measured in years, and the UltraSparc-III and UltraSparc-IV processors were also very late. No vendor likes to be reminded of this, but customers, you can be sure, like it even less when they are running out of processing capacity and when they are expecting a new server line with its consequent improvements in price/performance.

IBM's plan for the System p line apparently involves the use of 2.1 GHz multichip modules in the p5 590+ server, spanning from eight to 32 cores, while the p5 595+ machine will have from 16 to 64 cores, and will apparently have MCMs that run at two possible speeds, 2.1 GHz and 2.3 GHz. Sun and HP will try to make much of the fact that the Power5+ MCMs are a far cry below the 3+ GHz in the original Power5+ roadmaps from a few years ago, and less than the 2.5 GHz that many customers had expected early last year when the Power5+ chips were beginning to be talked about. Well, the UltraSparc-IV+ chip was supposed to hit 1.8 GHz and ramp to 2 GHz, and it came out at 1.5 GHz, and the Montecito Itanium was expected at over 2 GHz and will, if all goes well, come out at 1.6 GHz. Yields are not what people expected on these complex chips, apparently, and companies are putting limits on the amount of heat they will cope with in their air-cooled servers.

The Power5+ chips are not new, obviously. In October 2005, IBM delivered its first Power5+ chips in the p5 servers, including the 1.9 GHz dual-core module (DCM), which is based on a new, 90 nanometer chip process that allows IBM to speed the chip up compared to the 1.5 GHz and 1.65 GHz speeds of the Power5 chips that were launched for entry and midrange machines in the summer of 2004. With the System i5 announcements in late January, IBM also put out a 2.2 GHz Power5+ chip module that is used in the i5 570 machine. This server has two processor sockets, and each Power5 and Power5+ chip has two cores, so that makes the base i5 570 box a four-core server. Up to four basic i5 570 chasses can be lashed together through the "Squadron" chipset to make a 16-core box. IBM announced a quad-core module (QCM) running at 1.5 GHz last fall, but did not offer it in the System i5s, since it is aimed at high-performance and ultra-dense computing.

In addition to the big Power5+ boxes, the rumor mill is suggesting that IBM will put out Power5+ chips running at anywhere from 1.9 GHz to 2.1 GHz in single-core and dual-core versions in various rack and tower configurations that have one, two, or four active cores. IBM is also expected to boost the speed on the DCM and QCM units, which cram two or four cores into a single Power5+ server socket. IBM knows that it has to do whatever it can to keep its performance edge over Opteron-based servers from Sun and Itanium-based machines from HP, and that means boosting the Power5+ chips in entry rack and tower servers. This is the belly of the Sun Fire server line, and this is where the new battle is. Having beaten Sun's UltraSparc-III and UltraSparc-IV processors with the Power4, Power4+, and Power5 processors--and on some, but certainly not all, benchmarks showing rough parity with the UltraSparc-IV+ processors with its Power5+ chips--the battle has shifted in the server market. Because now customers are interested in price/performance and thermals as much as raw performance. And Sun's Opteron-based Galaxy servers offer excellent price/performance, attractive thermals, and run Solaris 10, which is arguably the best implementation of Unix on the market and certainly the most open now thanks to the OpenSolaris project. It will be very interesting to see how IBM prices all of this Power5+ gear, especially with the next-generation "Santa Rosa" Rev F dual-core Opterons expected on August 1 and Montecito coming only a week ahead of these Power5+ machines.

It is reasonable to expect that IBM will also add faster Power5+ processors to its Power 285 workstation line, which debuted last fall. It would be very interesting to see Big Blue put quad core modules in a workstation, thereby creating a machine that packs a wallop when it comes to floating point math. But, IBM would probably suggest that customers just buy a BladeCenter H chassis and populate it with JS21 blade servers, which also have quite a kick to them when equipped with 2.5 GHz dual-core PowerPC 970MP processors.


Power5+ Delays Force IBM to Cut High-End System p Prices

Power5+ to Probably Ramp to 2.2 GHz in IBM p5 Servers Soon

IBM Fleshes Out p5 Line with More Power5+ Processors

IBM Delivers Power5+ Unix Workstation

IBM Uses Quad-Core Package to Boost Power5+ Performance

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
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