IBM's newest AIX products feature the Power6, Sun's the UltraSPARC T2. It probably makes sense, therefore, to base a data center hardware cost comparison as much as possible on these two technologies.
Comparable scaling is a key issue, but there's enough consistency about the benchmark results both sides are putting up to let us use almost any one of them as a proxy for the real relative capabilities of the two current product lines. Look through, for example, the benchmark compilation provided by Sun's bmseer performance bloggers and you'll see that the T2 consistently beats the four core Power6 configurations by margins ranging from a few percent to over two thirds of IBM's scores..
We don't know exactly what IBM charges for its gear - but a recent TPC.org filing on a cluster of 32 p570 machines each with two dual core Power6 processors at 4.7Ghz and 32GB came in at $219,000 each - before $23,000 in support and AIX licensing.
In contrast, Sun freely publishes prices for its own products: the 64GB, 1.4Ghz, T5220 lists at $58,995, including Solaris and tools - giving Sun something better than a 4:1 cost advantage.
The T2 also gets a cost break from Oracle: a list price on the core database product of $80,000 for a dedicated T5220 machine versus a list price of $240,000 for the four processor IBM p570 - giving Sun a 3:1 pricing advantage to go with its performance edge.
If you're going to have enough units to care about power, Sun has a smaller advantage: 468 watts for the larger configuration during peak benchmark processing versus a claimed 1080 watts at 80% utilization for IBM -a ratio of only about 2.3 to 1.
The people who get to run this hypothetical data center will need workstations -and although most people use use PCs I argue that it's important for a Unix sysadmin to use Unix: i.e. to test every step and every idea on a personal workstation before committing anything to production systems.
For IBM that means dual core and at least Power5+ - i.e. an "IBM IntelliStation POWER 275" workstation at $14,832 each - including a ThinkVision 19" LCD Monitor and the $498 IBM wants for the base AIX V5.3 license.
For Sun it means getting a stripped (4 core, 1.2Ghz, 4GB, 2 x 146GB) T5120 for $13,995 plus a 24" Sun Ray ($1,844) for a total cost of $15,839. That's a thousand bucks worse than IBM - unless you need four of them, then Solaris container technology makes it $37,955 better.
Notice that I haven't mentioned either storage or high end hardware here. Sun's CMT/SMP "Victoria Falls" and "Rock" lines are due next year - about the same time IBM ships high end power6 stuff. In the meantime both companies are shipping stand-ins, older or third party products like Sun's M-series or IBM's Power5+ based p595. In those Sun is consistently cheaper, but the real differences are, as discussed yesterday, in applicability: anything that can be done by partitioning a p595 can also be done by virtualizing a rack of smaller T2 servers - for perhaps five to seven cents on the dollar.
I haven't mentioned storage for a different reason: the ZFS/X4500 "thumper" combination is not just the precursor for a new generation of Sun storage, it's so far ahead of anything IBM has that a fully loaded 24TB thumper now costs about one third as much as the 7TB DS4800 array used with the Power6 p570 gear cited in IBM's most recent QphH TPC.org filing.
What's going on in both cases is that these are transitional products - what we really need to know is what comparable stuff will cost from both companies late next year. We don't, but using present costs as a guide suggests that as long as Sun can get manufacturing geared up fast enough to meet demand, they'll continue to be hands down winners on price/performance across the data center.