IBM Gets Aggressive On Linux Server Sales

IBM's Power server line is struggling, so the vendor goes after x86 competitors with aggressively priced PowerLinux server and new software options.
With demand waning for Unix server upgrades, IBM on Tuesday stepped up its effort to capture Linux workloads by introducing the aggressively priced PowerLinux 7R4.

The 7R4 is based on the IBM Power 750 server, an all-purpose, four-socket, 32-core machine build for Unix, IBM System i, or Linux workloads. As with the previously available PowerLinux 7R1 and 7R2 (one- and two-socket servers), the 7R4 is licensed exclusively for use with Linux, and it's aggressively priced to go after Intel x86-based competitors.

"There's a whole new set of workloads and applications, from analytics and big data to mobile and other new applications that run on Linux," Chuck Bryan, team lead, IBM Power Systems, told InformationWeek. "This provides an alternative to x86 servers for Linux and will go head to head with products such as the HP DL580."

With hardware, software and an operating system, the 7R4 will be in the $65,000 to $70,000 range, with costs varying depending on the configuration, Bryan said.

Why buy Power when there are more x86 choices? Performance is the differentiator, according to IBM. Multi-threaded Java applications, for example, can take advantage of four threads per core instead of the two threads per core on Intel machines. What's more, Power 7+ series upgrades introduced over the last year include a highly optimized IBM Java Virtual Machine for better Java performance. Finally, the machine has a 2.5 times more cache than competitive Intel machines.

[ Want more on IBM's search for hot new product categories? Read IBM's Future Growth: Details Shrouded. ]

"We can be much more efficient running Java-based workloads in virtualized environments," said Bryan. "In the case of the 7R4, it's 35% to 40% better performance based on benchmarks."

There is the question of what software can run on Power, as that's a smaller universe than what's available for x86. IBM says it has more than 140 PowerLinux-compatible products, including everything from DB2 and WebSphere to IBM Cognos BI software and new IBM Watson cognitive intelligence offerings. Coming soon will be IBM SPSS, additional analytic software options and Tivoli service management software.

As for third-party software, SAP, Infor and other applications vendors offer Power-compatible applications that run on Linux, and open source options include EnterpriseDB. This commercially supported PostgresSQL-based database appeals to Linux and open source fans who want a low-cost, yet migration-compatible alternative to Oracle Database.

The RISC-chip-based Power line was originally built for AIX (Unix) workloads and it was later adapted (via Power VM virtualization software) to run IBM System i (formerly AS/400) workloads. That business is clearly waning, as Power server sales have seen double-digit declines in recent quarters, despite the release of Power 7+ upgrades.

IBM CFO Mark Loughridge has spotlighted the effort to capture more Linux business as an important step to reviving Power sales, but there's little doubt that steady increases in x86 performance are encroaching. At the high end, the Power 770, 780 and 795 servers compete with the likes of Oracle Sun Sparc and HP Itanium, whereas IBM's System Z mainframe is typically purchased by shops with legacy mainframe workloads.

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