The Battle in 64 bit Land: Merchant Chips on the Rise

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Showdown on the Summit: Intel versus IBM

While the rest of the players in the high end computers market have been mired in turmoil and transition, IBM has stood almost aloof. It’s POWER4 and POWER4+ based systems have made significant gains in the Unix server market share by appearing as relative islands of stability and longevity amidst Sun’s apparent SPARC death spiral and HP’s long and painful transition from PA-RISC and Alpha to IPF. In addition, IBM’s perennial cash cow, the mainframe enjoyed a mini-renaissance driven by a new generation of zSeries hardware with sales up 34% year over year in the latest quarter, ahead of all other IBM server lines. Ever pragmatic in recent years, IBM is also willing to bet on every merchant processor horse in the race to address markets where zSeries and PowerPC hardware is viewed as too expensive or too proprietary. Besides a thriving business in Xeon based servers, IBM also offers mid range commercial servers based on IPF and an Opteron based rack mount server for HPC clusters.

However IBM is not the only large (and not so large) player with high end server markets in its cross hairs. HP is ahead of IBM in total server sales and has a cash cow of its own, namely printers. Besides being Intel’s development partner for IPF processors, HP has established a full spectrum product line based on IPF ranging from a dual processor 1U form factor rack mount server to a 64 processor enterprise class server along with a line of high end technical workstations. Although still a small portion of overall revenue, quarterly sales of HP’s IPF based product line are reportedly growing at about 60% sequentially. SGI is also challenging IBM’s POWERx family with IPF-based hardware albeit in a niche segment, high performance computing (HPC). In less than a year after its introduction, SGI has already attracted over 200 customers for its Altix 3000 technical server which ranges in size from 16 to 256 CPUs. SGI has just introduced an IPF based departmental sized technical server and IPF based visualization systems and workstations will likely appear later this year. Unisys is another OEM enjoying success with IPF based systems which reportedly accounted for about 30% of its 2003 hardware revenue, about twice what was projected for the new product line.

Success in the high end computer market depends on many factors besides the price and performance of current boxes – software availability, vendor reputation, perception of platform viability and longevity, and the MPU supplier’s recognized ability to endlessly invest in future product and process development. The processor road maps for IPF and PowerPC are far more technically aggressive and ambitious than anything proposed for any other server processor family, most of which are in maintenance mode prior to being phased out of existence. This sets up an obvious three way architectural battle in the market for general purpose 64 bit MPUs. PowerPC and IPF will compete directly at the high end as PA-RISC, Alpha, MIPS disappear on schedule and SPARC continues to slowly implode. At the same time the RISC and EPIC architectures will have to fight a rear guard action to repel movement of relatively low cost and high volume 64 bit x86 processors upwards from PCs, general purpose workstations, and entry level servers into the traditional RISC strongholds like mid to high end commercial and technical servers, supercomputers, and high end technical workstations.

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