eServer Squadron Announcements May Be Imminent
March 15, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Under normal circumstances, it is hard to find out about any server maker’s impending announcements, particularly their launch dates, but the Power5 “Squadron” servers have been especially tough to nail down. All of the sources I talk to at the major suppliers have gotten a lot more tight-lipped since the go-go days of the dot-com boom, when information leaked out of companies like a fountain. In more ways than one, it seems, we are back to 1995.
The first rumors surrounding the impending iSeries and pSeries Power5-based “Squadron” servers are being heard on the street. And if the rumors are right, IBM may hit its original target for Power5, at least for midrange machines.
I had first heard that the midrange Power5-based machines, based on a single, eight-way multichip module (MCM), would debut sometime in the spring of 2004. Later, IBMers confirmed that there would be no Power5 announcements in the first quarter of 2004. Others would only say that the machines would debut around mid-2004, and still others said sometime in the first half of 2004. None of this is important, unless you are waiting to buy a new iSeries or pSeries or to upgrade to one, and you want to wait for the inevitable price break that accompanies a server launch. Figuring out the launch and ship dates isn’t just fun and games. This is about money and power (processing power, that is), and it is important for IT managers to nail down when the new machines are coming so that they can plan accordingly.
With everyone knowing that the Power5 machines are due in the next few months, it gets increasingly difficult for IBM to sell Power4 machines. I do not think anyone expects to see large Squadron configurations with 16, 32, or 64 processors before the summer, and maybe not until October or November, which is why IBM last month launched a kicker 1.9 GHz Power4+ processor in the pSeries 690 “Regatta” server. IBM could make an iSeries 890 machine based on this processor in a snap. A 32-way Regatta-H machine with these 1.9 GHz processors has broken through the barrier of 1 million transactions per minute (TPMs) on the TPC-C transaction processing benchmark test, and is the current performance leader. So it seems clear that IBM can keep its high-end iSeries and pSeries server biz humming along without Squadron. When Hewlett-Packard ships its “Hondo” mx2 dual Itanium 2 multichip modules in its 64-way Superdome servers, in mid-2004, IBM will be under pressure to boost the performance of the Power line. But those mx2 modules, which are being made by HP and will only be sold by HP for its Superdomes, already have been delayed by about six months, and they could be delayed again.
The core midrange, with four- and eight-way machines, is a different story. IBM has not yet shipped the faster Power4+ processors in these machines. Sun Microsystems will very soon become very aggressive with its 1.2 GHz, dual-core UltraSparc-IV processors in this space, and HP will similarly be pushing its dual-core PA-RISC 8800s, both of which were announced in mid-February. IBM arguably has the performance lead with the Power4+, but not by as big of a margin as it has enjoyed throughout 2003. IBM has to do something to keep the lead on RISC/Unix boxes, and since the iSeries and pSeries share the same basic processor complex, whatever IBM does to push Unix helps to push OS/400 as well.
So when I heard that IBM might be moving up the Power5 chip and initial midrange Squadron server launch to March 31, I was not exactly surprised. Apparently, IBM has been tossing that day around as a possibility, but my sources tell me that nothing has been pinned down. What I do know is that IBM will be talking openly about OS/400 V5R3 and the new Squadron line at the iSeries ITSO Forum, which will be held in Barcelona, Spain, from April 26 through 30, in the Americas from May 10 through 14, and in Asia/Pacific from May 24 through 28. On the AIX front, IBM is hosting a six-week residency program that starts May 3 and runs through June 11 in Austin, Texas, which will cover micropartitioning (putting more than one logical partition on a processor, which will be new for the pSeries but old hat for the iSeries) and virtual I/O. It stands to reason that the new Squadron machines will come out before these events take place. I would not be surprised to see a late March or early April announcement, with shipments in April or May, for the initial Squadron machines.
I also would not be shocked if the Squadron machines do not bear either the iSeries or the pSeries moniker. There have been rumors that IBM will finally consolidate the brand name for these two lines when the machine uses a Power5 processor. This has been a persistent rumor for more than three years. But I think there is a better than even chance that IBM will finally do it, because the Power hardware and OS/400 software have been cleanly broken from each other, with the January 2003 iSeries announcements. Now IBM can have an eServer running AIX and an eServer running OS/400, and can give the box the same name and model number with different operating system feature numbers. I have not heard this name from anyone, so I am just guessing for the fun of it, but I think that the odds favor a name like eServer DataCenter.
Think about it. The first machine that did not have “series” in its name was the BladeCenter blade server chassis. This is a real eServer machine, in that it supports three different operating systems (AIX, Linux, and Windows) and two different processor architectures (Intel‘s Pentium 4 Xeon and IBM’s PowerPC 970) in the same box. A Squadron server will support OS/400, AIX, and Linux, all on the same Power5 platform. And it clearly belongs in the data center. The name eServer DataCenter just makes sense. Moreover, if and when IBM consolidates the zSeries architecture into the Power architecture with the Power6 generation, in late 2006 or so, as many expect, IBM can keep the name eServer DataCenter for these boxes, too. The whole “series” thing may have been temporary. And so may IBM’s current numbering scheme for server families and models.
If I were IBM, and I were thinking along these lines, I might designate the OS/400 variants of the Squadron boxes as the eServer DataCenter 400 series, the AIX variants as the eServer DataCenter 600 series, and the Linux variants as the eServer DataCenter 300 series. And I would probably create a new designation for a box that was enabled to support three of these platforms at the same time, and if I were IBM I would certainly charge a hefty premium for this. Maybe the eServer DataCenter 500 series for this three-platform box? That would leave the eServer DataCenter 900 series for when the zSeries is consolidated into the platform with the Power6.
Taking this naming one step further, IBM could use the first number to designate the operating system platform (4 in the case of OS/400), the next number to designate the processor generation (5 in the case of the Power5), and the one or two numbers to designate how many active processors are in the base box. If you wanted to keep a three-digit number, the last digit could be a power of 2 multiple that gives this number–1 for 2 CPUs, 2 for 4 CPUs, 3 (2 cubed) for 8 CPUs, 4 for 16 CPUs, 5 for 32 CPUs, and 6 for 64 CPUs. You could do a computer line this way that spanned from a two-way to a 512-way machine (2 to the power of 9) and spanned all the way to the Power9 generation (which in theory would debut in 2012 and run through late 2103 to early 2014, a decade from now) and still only be three digits. So in this theoretical naming scheme, a four-way Squadron server that only runs OS/400 might be an eServer DataCenter 452, while a 64-way running AIX only would be an eServer DataServer 656. It would be interesting if the model numbers actually meant something. This scheme conveys a lot more information than iSeries 870 or pSeries 690, or any of the myriad stupid names that have come out of IBM since the very smart name of System/360 in 1964. That name meant “spanning 360 degrees,” covering the gamut from small to large users with a single architecture. From that pun, and the way it locked IBM into how it talks about computers, came the silliness in IBM naming schemes for the past four decades.
I don’t know about you, but I have had enough. I like my way of doing it, as you might expect.
One last thing. You may not know this, but IBM is still supporting the initial B series AS/400 servers. They will have their support withdrawn on December 31, 2004, after nearly 6,000 days in the field. That is a stunning number. Just for fun, I have built a chart that shows the launch dates of all of the 9406-class AS/400 and iSeries “data center” class machines since their debut in June 1988. In this table, I am estimating the launch dates of the Squadron boxes, when they will be available, and comparing that with the prior generations. I am also taking a stab at predicting when support will be withdrawn for the remaining machines in the line. I think that IBM is going to try to kill off one generation of AS/400 machines a year. If it wants to push sales, the company might even accelerate pulling the plug on support faster than what I am showing. I think this is a best-case scenario, so if you have one of these older machines in production, you had better start planning for your own worst-case scenario.