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IBM's i890 consolidates data, eyes Unix market

Big Blue unveils new enterprise-class system with capacity of up to 32 logical partitions for Linux, OS/400.

At one point, Apria Healthcare's server environment was the computer equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

The Lake Forest, Calif., company ran 175 different servers to track data across multiple application platforms. Juggling diverse operating systems, including IBM's OS/400, Linux and Java, on different machines created administrative migraines. "If I wanted to know, for instance, how much business or accounts receivable we have with Aetna, I would have to pull (data from) 175 machines," said George Suda, executive vice president of information systems.

Apria is a longtime IBM Corp. shop that had been using iSeries and AS 400 systems to consolidate its data servers. The consolidation effort has helped Apria whittle its servers to fewer than 30. In June it became the first U.S. company to receive shipment of the eServer i890, a refrigerator-sized machine that Big Blue hopes will boost its market share selling large mainframe-like application servers. Apria purchased two i890s -- one is a "mirrored" backup server located at a remote site -- and will fire them up across its production environment in September.

By April of next year, the company expects to collapse its remaining workload servers onto a single i890 box. "The i890 helps us continue our server consolidation by giving us the partitioning we need, the bandwidth, speed and performance we need, and the ability to grow our processing power as we need it," said Suda.

The i890 contains up to 32 microprocessors that can be individually partitioned to act as application servers. That is nearly double the processing horsepower of previous iSeries machines, according to IBM.

Blending pieces of its pSeries and iSeries systems made it easier for IBM to pack more power into its proprietary Power4 microprocessors, said Gordon Haff, an analyst with research firm Illuminata of Nashua, N.H. "Having the pSeries with the Unix space in mind, and having the iSeries with the whole AS/400 heritage, should help IBM pick up space in the application server market," said Haff.

Indeed, the Power4 architecture is chock full of power: two processors per chip, with four chips on a multi-chip module. Although industry analysts have hailed the dizzying processing speed of the i890 -- in some benchmarks, the server ran as fast as 1.3 gigahertz -- such power comes at a price. IBM pegs base starting prices for i890 servers at $1.5 million. "Just because of its size, the i890 is going to be found mostly in larger enterprises. We're talking companies with about $500,000 to $1 million in revenue," said Haff.

The i890 comes in two flavors of processing power. One box comes equipped with up to 24 Power4 microprocessors, 16 of which are active and eight others that can be activated on an as-needed basis. A second i890 contains up to 32 processors, with 24 active and an additional eight available for sudden spikes in demand.

This feature, dubbed by IBM as Capacity Upgrade on Demand, had been optional on previous iSeries machines. With the advent of i890, IBM decided to make its processor-on-demand feature a standard offering on machines with as few as four activated processors. "It allows customers to pay for additional processing power as they need it," instead of paying for capacity they might never use, said Jim Herring, IBM's eServer iSeries product development manager.

The i890 also ships with the latest version of IBM's iSeries operating system, OS/400, Version 5 Release 2. According to Herring, IBM tried to design the new operating system to simplify enterprise IT management. "There are a lot of system management features built in (to V5R2) that are focused on the high end, such as mainframe clustering, number of partitions, iSeries navigation tools, disk management, RAID-to-disk mining and also a lot of optimization tools."

Apria runs a range of enterprise applications, including SAP, JD Edwards, WebSphere and Domino. Suda said the i890 enables the company to access all the data applications from one location. The dynamic partitions enable his company to avoid costly downtime for installing new processors. Yet there is a drawback. Centralizing data also means centralizing risk. "If I have 175 AS 400s, and one of them goes down, I have 1/175th of my business go down. If my corporate box goes down, I have the whole company go down," said Suda.

Companies running high-availability applications are most apt to benefit from installing the i890, said Haff. "If you're writing a homegrown application, then you're probably not buying an IBM iSeries. If, on the other hand, you're running a JD Edwards-type module, then an iSeries is certainly something to consider. It's certainly not the only option, but it is something big platforms could use."

Regarding other options, Haff doesn't consider HP's e3000 server line as IBM's main competition in the Unix space. He suggests that comes from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems -- specifically its SunFire 6800. SunFire machines scale up to 24 processors and often are used for a range of data center-management functions, including consolidation.

One key difference, notes Haff: the SunFire machines come equipped with "hot plugs" that let enterprises add more processors as needed. This differs from the "sealed box" approach chosen by IBM, where additional processing capacity is activated without attaching new devices or equipment. The SunFire machines cost less, too: the base list price for the midrange family of servers starts at about $430,000 and goes as high as $834,000, according to Sun.

According to Herring, IBM is using the i890 to gain a greater share of the market for Unix application servers. Although the company appears to be making headway, sales of iSeries machines have been down the last two quarters. IBM can take some comfort in knowing things are tough all over. HP, for example, recently scrapped its e3000 server line, which is similar to iSeries.


>> Discuss i890 in more detail in the    .gbSKaaw9nzN.1@.ee84639!viewtype=&skip=&expand=>Search400 forum on Managing the iSeries.

>> Check out Search400's Best Web Links on iSeries tools and utilities.

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