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IBM, HP servers won't stop x86 onslaught on Unix

The announcement of high-end servers by IBM and Hewlett-Packard this week won't halt declining Unix server sales as the onslaught of x86 servers continues, analysts said.

IBM this week launched four Power servers that are based on its latest Power7 processor, which will support the Unix and Linux operating systems. Hewlett-Packard said it would incorporate Intel's latest Itanium chip into its Integrity servers, which will also support the Unix OS. Both the chips offer twice the performance of their predecessors, while expanding features to deliver better system reliability and uptime.

But even the new chips will have little effect on reviving the declining sales of Unix servers, analysts said. Customers are increasingly opting for servers based on x86 chips, which are getting more powerful and entering markets traditionally dominated by Unix servers.

The Unix market — including hardware and applications — is considered to be flat or falling with the onslaught of x86 servers into the server arena. During the third quarter of 2009, IBM was the leader in Unix server revenue with 39.5 percent market share; HP was a close second with a 29.2 percent market share. During the quarter Unix server revenue declined by 23.4 percent to $2.8 billion compared to the third quarter of 2008, according to IDC.

A lot of customers are switching to x86 servers because of lower hardware and software costs attached to acquiring and maintaining the systems, said Jim McGregor, technology strategist at In-Stat. Unix servers may offer better system performance, but they are relevant for a limited set of applications, McGregor said. Comparatively, the x86 servers have broken away from their reputation as weak performers and are now capable of running a plethora of high-end applications, McGregor said.

The Unix market remains a niche for tasks like financial processing that require high-end performance, McGregor said. Some companies invest a lot in the software for Unix servers and may stick with the existing infrastructure instead of switching to x86 servers.

But tying companies into specialized software stacks is pushing the Unix market into a corner, McGregor said. Companies are seeking flexibility and can easily acquire x86 servers off the shelf, he said. The expanding x86 software infrastructure is also a good reason for many companies to switch, analysts said.

Traditional x86 chips don't offer the RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features to maintain high server uptime, said Charles King, principal analyst at research firm Pund-IT. But the line is blurring as the x86 chips becoming increasingly powerful and capable, King said. There's a continuing move upward by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, whose chips are now being used in supercomputers to process complex math calculations.

It will be interesting to see the impact of Intel's eight-core Nehalem-EX servers on Unix servers, King said. Intel claims that the Nehalem-EX server chip will be its fastest chip to date, and could push x86-based machines into the territory of high-end servers. The chip has drawn features like error correction from Intel's high-end Itanium chip.

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