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IBM Rolls Out New Workstations

IBM Corp. this week unveiled two new Intel-based workstations that feature reliability and availability technologies borrowed from its xSeries server line. IBM introduced a new mid-range workstation, the IntelliStation M Pro 6219, along with a high-end model, the IntelliStation Z Pro 6221.

Designed for less demanding applications, the M Pro 6219 is based on Intel’s Pentium 4 microprocessor (running at speeds in excess of 3 GHz) and supports up to 4 GB of DDR SDRAM. The high-end Z Pro 6221, on the other hand, is designed for demanding simulation, modeling, 3D rendering or other applications. It can be outfitted with single or dual Intel Xeon microprocessors running at 2.8 GHz.

According to Rick Rudd, product manager for IBM’s workstation products, Big Blue’s new Intel-based workstations address specific market niches. On the low-end, he suggests, few of the applications used by power users, engineers or designers are multi-threaded. “Better than 80 percent of the applications in the marketplace are still single-threaded, so high-performance Pentium 4 systems are still in demand for a lot of customers.”

At the same time, Rudd continues, high-end users need the power of dual Xeon processors for a variety of specialized applications. “We’re talking about things like oil exploration, visualization, x-ray lithography, content creation, rendering.”

Both new IntelliStations incorporate technologies derived from IBM’s eServer xSeries line of Intel-based servers, including diagnostic LEDs to help system administrators quickly identify damaged components; integrated RAID mirroring; Error Checking and Correcting (ECC) memory to ensure data coherency and allow online recovery from memory errors; beefed up power supplies to support rich configurations and prolong system life.

IBM’s Rudd says that such availability and reliability features can be a competitive differentiator in a contentious PC workstation market segment. “In the kind of customer segments that we’re focusing on, customers do demand a higher level of availability,” he acknowledges, observing that many scientific modeling simulations “run for days, and [scientists] can’t afford an outage.”

Charles King, a senior analyst with consultancy Sageza Research, says that Intel’s Xeon chips today compete with RISC-Unix in the workstation space for all but the most high-end of simulation, design and rendering applications. “As the Intel Xeon chips have become increasingly powerful, they’ve been slowly nibbling away at the lower end of the workstation market.”

As a sign of the times, King points to the defection of 3D effects specialty house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), which earlier this year announced that it planned to support some aspects of animation rendering using Pentium 4-based workstations. ILM had previously used RISC workstations manufactured by Silicon Graphics Inc. to accomplish the same task. “You’re still seeing higher-end workstations being used for the finishing-touch graphics rendering, but it’s tough to argue with the price-performance of the Intel-based systems.”

According to Pia Rieppo, a principal analyst with market research firm Gartner Group, workstation shipments as a whole have been on the wane since 1999. “The first half of this year, the revenues were half of what they were in the first half of 1999, in actual dollar value, that goes to show how the market has basically collapsed.”

The market for RISC-Unix workstations, she says, has been hardest hit. “Of the shipments in 2001, 72 percent of the shipments were in the … 32-bit Intel CPU camp, and 28 percent were in the RISC camp. For the first three quarters of this year, that percentage has tilted even more towards Intel. Now 78 percent of the shipments are Intel and 22 percent are RISC.”

The result, Rieppo points out, is that Intel-based workstations -- which are typically priced at a fraction of the cost of RISC-Unix systems -- are now volume and revenue market leaders. In place of Unix, the vast majority of these workstations, greater than 95 percent, run some version of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, according to Gartner.

“Windows is clearly the most popular [operating system for Intel-based workstations]. For the first three quarters of this year, it was 96 percent Windows. Linux is a very small proportion there. Most of the commercial applications exist on the Windows platform,” she says.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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