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64-Bit Contenders Jockey for Slice of Capital Markets

High-end UNIX users in financial markets to be spoiled for choice this year.

High-end UNIX users in financial markets are going to be spoiled for choice this year. Hot on the heels of the launch of Compaq's AlphaServer GS range, comes IBM's launch of a commercial version of the ASCI White supercomputer it has delivered to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), while HP has set its new Superdome launch for mid-September.

This flurry of high-powered activity seems to reflect a common objective. "Windows 2000 is now starting to crawl up the tailpipe of a lot of UNIX systems," says Richard Partridge, an analyst at D. H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, NY. "Therefore it makes sense for the UNIX vendors to carve out territory well away from the commodity market. To do this they have been trying to grow ever-larger systems and chip away at the mainframe territory, where the margins on the necessary services and support are better."

HP in particular has been piling on the aggressive rhetoric and claiming its Superdome as a mainframe replacement and is clearly keen to claim a slice of IBM and Sun's share of high-end capital markets horsepower. The server will be the first from HP to offer the ability to split a system into several different independent sub-computers. This feature, commonplace in the mainframe market, is useful for customers wishing to run multiple instances of operating systems so that new software can be safely tested. Superdome will run the latest 11i release of HP UX (specifically optimized for it) which will be able to scale to 256 of Intel's IA-64 processors.

However, Intel's delays with its new 64-bit processors have posed HP with a problem, though the company has admittedly laid out a plausible processor upgrade path for the Superdome. The initial version will use HP's PA-RISC chips, but users will be able to swap these out with daughterboards containing Intel's second-generation McKinley IA-64 processors.

However, to judge by the response from some financial CIOs, HP could have a tough job dislodging Sun and IBM UNIX boxes from their well-established niche on the financial Web or IBM's mainframes from data centers and back offices. "I don't think that this is going to make much difference - certainly in the short term," says Martin Geraghty, CIO of broker TD Waterhouse's UK operations.

"In this marketplace, new technology is suspect until proven and, in view of the costs of changing systems, one gains little kudos for installing something new for the sake of it. We selected Sun E4500s as our Web servers and have found that they deliver in terms of robustness and scalability. HP would have to show an absolutely overwhelming price/performance gain for us to consider switching."

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