IBM’s Unix Servers Eclipse Sun

  • Written By: R. Krause
  • Published: March 31 2000


Event Summary

March 10, 2000

NEW YORK - IBM Corp. sold nearly three times as many high-end servers for the Unix operating system as market-leader Sun Microsystems Inc. in the fourth quarter of 1999, research company International Data Corp. reported Friday. IBM sold 720 new RS/6000 S80 servers in the fourth quarter, compared with Sun's sale of 255 of flagship E10000 servers, the report said. The servers-powerful computers that manage other computers - are designed to run the Unix OS aimed at industrial-strength business uses.

The report came two days after Sam Palmisano, head of IBM's server group, told analysts that growth in servers would come through improved products and a more focused sales effort.

Hardware such as servers represents 30 percent of a $700 billion electronic business market, he said. IBM's S80 Unix server, introduced last year, was among the first products to use IBM's copper-based microprocessors, which provide high performance from a lower number of processors, reducing costs. IBM said the S80's sales strength was dramatic due to the fact that they only began shipping in September. "This shows that we're really outselling Sun in the top end," said Michael Kerr, vice president of product management for IBM's server group. "We have every indication these numbers are being sustained." IBM is also seeking to grow its server business and redefine the competitive field by moving its copper technology to the midrange servers, starting in May. "We're going to take that same technology and move it further down in our family," Kerr said.

Market Impact

We don't really care about a single quarter's sales figures, especially when some significant part of it probably results from pent up demand for a product, as well as being compared to a year-old product. Sales figures over the course of a year are much better indicators whether IBM is truly "taking it to" Sun. IBM might have the edge in installed base, and with two-thirds of the initial sales going to that base, the numbers are not as impressive.

What is interesting is that Sun's performance story (Unix/Solaris) is now being attacked on two fronts. On the different-OS front, Compaq has produced TPC benchmarks for a clustered 64-processor system (running Windows 2000) that surpasses Sun's E10000 performance by 30%, for about one-quarter the price. Although comparing Windows to Unix/Solaris is a little risky (apples-to-oranges, or maybe grapefruit-to-oranges), the point of a Windows-based system pummeling a Solaris-based system should not make for celebration in Palo Alto, the home of Sun.

Of greater concern to Sun will be the S80's superior performance in the TPC-C and other benchmarks, including SAP R/3 two-tier and three-tier, BaanERP, SPECweb96, and Notes Bench. These figures have all-but-eliminated (for now) Sun's performance selling point; and they both run Unix. [Yes, we realize that Solaris and IBM's AIX OS are different, but their strengths and weaknesses - especially as compared to Windows-based systems - are similar. Solaris is considered more robust than AIX in terms of reliability, scalability, and compatibility than AIX, but those factors should not be the only decision points.]

One caveat regarding the performance numbers: a large part of IBM's price/performance differential comes from two sources:

  1. IBM's deeper discount (40% on initial hardware costs, 36% total vs. approx. 10% on maintenance only from Sun) which accounts for approximately $30/tpmC

  2. Different pricing on Oracle 8 (Sun is paying about $1.4M more for the initial license plus five-year maintenance) which equates to approximately $10/tpmC. Given that Oracle has different discount structures for different clients, Scott McNealy might consider having a "friendly chat" with Larry Ellison about pricing.

This still leaves IBM with an advantage, so Sun needs to increase performance, or reduce prices, or both, to go head-to-head with IBM. Since the processing power "growth curve" for the SPARC architecture seems to be rising slower than that for Intel, Sun might want to spend more time in that area. And focus less on going after Microsoft.

User Recommendations

With a sticker price for a "nicely equipped" system upwards of one million dollars, the S80 is certainly not for everyone. But it certainly is powerful enough to run large data center operations or centralized ERP operations, and its price/performance is very good for a high-end Unix system. The combination of price and performance provides an alluring message for users. IBM's hardware is generally considered more reliable than Sun's (especially after the eBay embarrassments last year). As mentioned earlier, users prefer Solaris's reliability, scalability, and compatibility relative AIX. [Source: Computerworld]

Users wishing to buy (or stay with) Sun's offerings should consider negotiating a better discount from Sun, so that the costs are somewhat closer to IBM's offering. The higher-rated Solaris is a plus for Sun, we question whether "my better OS" beats "your better hardware".

The end result: there is no perfect system nor magic bullet answer. Users need to assess their particular hardware and OS requirements, along with performance and price needs, and map them appropriately to the systems available. For more robust hardware and price/performance, IBM may be the better choice; where OS robustness is the criterion, Sun should be considered in the lead.

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