How i5s Stack Up to Alternatives, Revisited
September 7, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
In the wake of the May eServer i5 announcements, I compared the i5 machines and other entry and midrange boxes running Windows, Linux, or Unix. Since then, IBM has announced the new midrange i5 Model 550 and changed the pricing on all i5s. The company has also launched the p5 Unix variants of the “Squadron” Power5 machines, and rival Sun Microsystems has delivered similarly powered Opteron servers running Solaris. To help you make your acquisition decisions, I am updating those comparisons.
Rather than separately compare i5/OS to Windows, Linux, and Unix, as I did before, I am putting the performance, price, and price/performance comparisons for entry and midrange platforms for these four platforms into one giant table. This might be cumbersome, but it makes for easier comparisons.
The table is based on actual performance figures on the TPC-C online benchmark tests (where available) or reasonable estimates for the maximum performance of a given processor if its memory and I/O were not bottlenecks. In the case of the i5 and p5 machines, performance estimates are based on IBM’s well-documented CPW and rPerf benchmarks, which are variants of the TPC-C test. Sun doesn’t do TPC-C tests anymore, but with the performance and value of its Sun Fire Z class servers, which use Advanced Micro Devices‘ Opteron processors and run Sun’s own Solaris Unix variant, it might reconsider getting back into the TPC-C benchmarketing game. Hewlett-Packard has run TPC-C tests on both its Xeon-based ProLiant servers running Windows and its Itanium-based Integrity servers running its HP-UX Unix variant on entry and midrange boxes in this power class (also commendable). Linux performance on the ProLiant machines running either Oracle or MySQL databases, as I explained a few months ago, is largely based on intelligent guesswork on my part. (While I would rather not have to make estimates at all, the relative scarcity of performance information forces one to make good guesses. I just figure it is my job to save all of you the trouble. Write once, use many times. That’s my motto.)
To make comparisons with the entry i5 servers easier, I tried to find Windows, Linux, and Unix machines in the same power or price class as the i5 Model 520 Express machines. This is not always easy, since IBM gears down the Model 520 Express configuration so far that you would only need a half, a quarter, or even less of a Wintel, Lintel, or RISC/Unix box to match the performance of the i5 Model 520 Express boxes. Moving up into comparisons with true i5 machines–the real Model 520s, plus the new Model 550s and the base Model 570s–I tried to put machines in roughly the same performance class. This is not always an easy task, since different kinds of processors and server architectures yield different performance levels. I tried to pick configurations with approximately 25,000, 50,000, or 100,000 transactions per minute (TPM) of power.
Having figured out what configuration could support a given TPM rate, I went online and priced the configurations shown in the table, including the base CPU complex, a certain amount of what I deemed was base memory and disk, a respectable tape drive, an operating system, a relational database, and client access licenses (which are needed for Windows).
While Wintel machines get a lot of credit for setting the price/performance pace in the server market, Wintel machines are, as you would expect from a quasi-proprietary platform, quite a bit more expensive than alternative Lintel iron, at least in terms of bang for the buck. A few months ago, when I reviewed IBM’s pricing for its pSeries Unix product line and HP’s Integrity rx Series of Itanium boxes, I said that pricing in the Unix market was not just aggressive but actually insane. Now IBM has launched the eServer p5s, and Sun has jumped in with its Opteron-based Sun Fire Opteron machines, the two-way V20z, and the four-way V40z, and pricing has gone beyond aggressive, through insane, and right out to stark raving mad. It is the aggressive competition among IBM, Sun, and HP that is driving the server market. And this has been the case since the early 1990s.
With the Power5-based Squadron boxes, IBM promised to keep pricing for the basic hardware components of the i5 and p5 variants of the Squadrons in lock step. I have checked this out, and it appears to be basically true. However, the price of operating system, database, and other systems software (like OS/400’s 5250 Enterprise Enablement features) skew wildly apart. If you want to know how IBM can afford to charge anywhere from $.43 to $1.64 per TPM on the p5 Squadron boxes–that’s with AIX and Oracle10g configured–all you need to know is that IBM is trying to charge $2 per TPM for i5 entry and midrange machines running i5/OS Standard Edition and roughly $6 to $7 per TPM for the same boxes running i5/OS Enterprise Edition (that’s the one with 5250 turned on). Once again, the OS/400 server base is subsidizing IBM’s aggressive market share gains in the Unix market, only this time it is doing it through much higher software fees and 5250 enablement fees, rather than also charging more for hardware, too. This is progress of a sort. But it is not the progress that many of us had hoped for when IBM began revamping the OS/400 server line in 2003 and again in 2004.
To be fair, as I have shown in prior articles, the revamping of the iSeries product line has resulted in big improvements in price/performance and some lower hardware and software costs (through downshifting OS/400 software tiers), compared with the AS/400 products of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is, of course, welcome. But the eServer i5 does not live in a vacuum. It lives in more than 200,000 data centers where people who are just as zealous about Unix, Windows, or Linux are trying to get rid of the AS/400. Having such a price/performance gap with the outside would does not help the OS/400’s cause. It’s a tough call, though. While the “Green Streak” promotions of 2002 and the test trials of the new Express packaging prove that there is a great deal of elasticity in the market for OS/400 wares, there may not be enough in the poor worldwide economy to actually make the i5 literally competitive with Windows, Linux, and Unix alternatives. Some pretty important people at IBM have obviously come to that conclusion; otherwise I would be writing a story that said “i5 machines offer the same bang for the buck as p5 machines.” I am not writing that story.
And just to be precise, the performance of the p5 machines shown in the table are based on rPerf numbers for machines running AIX 5L 5.2, last year’s Unix operating system from IBM. IBM’s initial rPerf estimates for the eServer p5 machines indicate that it expects to be able to get 30 percent more performance out of exactly the same p5 iron, regardless of processor make, model, or configuration, just by switching to AIX 5L 5.3. At least as far as TPC-C is concerned, AIX running Oracle has far outstripped OS/400 running DB2/400 on essentially the same iron.
IBM’s p5 pricing, when coupled with Oracle’s equally aggressive 10g database pricing, puts the heat on Sun, but Sun’s Opteron server line can take it if AMD can crank up the processing speed and double the cores on its chips in fairly short order. HP’s Integrity line of Itanium servers should be able to keep pace starting next week, when Intel is expected to launch the 1.9 GHz/9 MB cache “Madison” Itanium 2 chip, which should have about a 30 percent performance boost. Like IBM (which plays the p5 off the i5 to maximize overall server shipments and profits; those who can jump to Unix do and those who can’t stay and pay), Sun can play off its Opteron machines against its UltraSparcs, and HP can play its Integrities off against its vast installed bases of HP 9000 (Unix), HP 3000s (proprietary), and AlphaServers (Unix and OpenVMS, which is proprietary). Prices are not coming down on UltraSparcs and HP 9000s to meet the IBM p5, Sun Opteron, and HP Integrity server pricing. These server makers are carving up their installed bases into those who want to stay with more expensive technologies that have large portfolios of software and less expensive technologies that wish they had a lot of software working on them. The cheap prices are, in effect, a twisted kind of reimbursement for the hassle of porting code to these new architectures.
While this approach is commendable for duking it out in the Unix market, it is somewhat suicidal in terms of protecting the installed bases of other computing environments, such as OS/400. I don’t know what else I can do about it, except to point out the disparities so you are aware of them. I would like to believe that IBM believes that OS/400 should stay competitive with Unix platforms, if not for Enterprise Edition machines, then at least for Standard Edition machines. As it is, even customers that are not using 5250 green-screen processing capabilities seem to be subsidizing those that are. I said this in November 2002, when I proposed my iDeal iSeries machines, and I will say it again: to be competitive, IBM needs to have OS/400 and DB2/400 editions that match those in the market at large and that only charge customers for the features they use. This is what Oracle is doing with Oracle 10g Standard Edition One ($4,995 per processor for two-way machines), 10g Standard Edition ($15,000 per processor for four-way machines), and 10g Enterprise Edition ($40,000 per processor for larger machines). Even AIX has fairly straightforward pricing: $385 per processor on either an i5/p5 Model 520 or Model 550 and $1,225 on an i5/p5 Model 570. And it only costs a few hundred bucks to add the Virtualization Engine features to AIX 5L 5.3, which support micropartitioning and come “free” in OS/400 and i5/OS. So either it is worth more–in which case IBM should cut i5/OS prices and jack up AIX prices–or it is worth a few hundred bucks–in which case IBM should cut i5/OS prices, and by more than a few hundred bucks.
Knowing what IBM is charging for DB2 on Unix platforms and for AIX (which is now roughly equivalent to OS/400), we can work backward to see what the true cost of that 5250 processing is. Then we can ponder what it ought to be. I, for one, would be happy if the i5 machines running i5/OS Standard Edition matched Unix pricing and the i5 machines running i5/OS Enterprise Edition matched the pricing of the world’s dominant proprietary server environment, Windows.