Sizing up IBM's new RS/6000s

IBM Corp.'s new copper-based microprocessor technology made its debut in

the RS/6000 line earlier this year, where it serves as the power plant for

a pair of machines designed to run World Wide Web-based applications.

I checked out these two Unix-based computers, the 170 and 270, which are

the latest models in IBM's 44P line of RS/6000s. The 170 is a single processor

machine that comes with either a 333 or 400 MHz Power3-II processor. The

270 is a symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) box that supports up to four 375

MHz Power3-II processors. The Power3-II processor is the first IBM chip

wired with copper, which IBM claims boosts processor performance dramatically

over chips wired with aluminum.

The 170 is aimed squarely at the workstation market, though it would certainly

make an adequate server for a small workgroup or even a lower volume, less

complex Web site. The model I tested included a 400 MHz processor, 1G of

RAM, about 36G of disk, and a GXT130P graphics adapter. A variety of configurations

are available better graphics or more storage.

The first thing I noticed about the 170 was that the plastic door covering

the storage and power switches had sheared off at the hinges in transit.

This is a problem that RS/6000s have had for years, and I don't even want

to think about what it costs to have an IBM tech come out and replace the

door. To be fair, evaluation systems such as the ones I tested spend a lot

more time on the road than the typical system, but that's hardly a solid

excuse.

Though it's certainly more spacious than the previous line of 43P models,

you won't find too much free space inside the 44P Model 170. Side-panel

access to virtually any component except memory and PCI slots involves removing

additional panels. Two difficult-to-reach screws locking the front panel

in place hinder front panel maintenance access to storage devices.

Once powered up, the 44P is a snappy performer. I configured the machine

for Web development and found it to be more than up to the task. The 44P

model 170 is suitable for a variety of graphical applications and traditional

development jobs. It certainly has enough horsepower to be used as a server

in certain situations.

As tested, the 170 costs about $20,700. Nearly $12,000 of this price is

for the IBM disk drive and RAM, two items that you might find for less money

from another vendor. Though the 170 offers impressive SPEC (Standard Performance

Evaluation Corp.) performance numbers for the money, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s

comparable Ultra 60 and Ultra 80 product lines, with the increased flexibility

of their SMP configuration options (two processors in the Ultra 60 and four

in the Ultra 80) may mean that the pricier 270 is a better competitor to

these models, and may leave the 170 without a niche to fill.

Where more computational clout is needed (and where budgetary constraints

allow), the 170's big brother, the 44P Model 270 steps up to the plate.

With up to four state-of-the-art IBM CPUs and plenty of room for storage

and RAM, the 270 fills the bill as a very high-end workstation or as a server

for complex Web applications.

I tested a 44P Model 270 with four 375 MHz Power3-II processors, a 9G hard

drive and 4G of RAM. The machine can take up to 8G of RAM and a hard drive

as large as 54G.

I configured the 270 in much the same way as the 170 — as a Web development

machine and server. There is no question that this machine is a great performer

for this type of task, with it's powerful SMP capability making it an ideal

candidate for multi-threaded, server-side Java applications.

As tested, the 270 comes in at about $48,000, with $26,685 of that being

for RAM. The system compares favorably from a cost standpoint to the Sun

Enterprise 450 server. Though the 450 has significantly more storage capacity

than IBM's 270, the 270 turns in significantly better SPEC CPU95 benchmark

results, according to the SPEC Web site. This makes the 270 a clear choice

for workstation performance, though the case for it as a server is hindered

somewhat by its weaker storage flexibility.

My major gripe about the 270, aside from the high price, is the somewhat

bulky case. With it's odd height, width, and depth, it's going to require

its own special space in the data center. A more rack-friendly form factor

would increase the appeal for this box in the data center.

Nevertheless, the RS/6000 44P Models 170 and 270 are solid performers. Engineering

users, developers and administrators looking for high-end workstations and

servers will be quite pleased with these offerings from Big Blue.

—Hammond is a freelance writer based in Denver. He can be reached at ehammond@earthlink.net.

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