IBM BladeCenter Changes Chip and Chassis

What do the PlayStation 3 and IBM’s next-generation blade system have in common? A single Cell, you might say.

Last week, IBM announced plans to deliver a new a blade system based on the aggressively multi-core Cell Broadband Engine microprocessor it developed (in tandem with Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.) for the PlayStation 3 game console.

Big Blue had blades on the brain last week. In addition to its Cell-based blade—which isn’t expected to be available until Q3 of this year—IBM also announced a chassis redesign for its BladeCenter hardware (dubbed BladeCenter H, and available next month) as well as its first dual-core PowerPC-based blade server and—at last—an ultra-low-power blade system, too.

Big Blue isn’t pitching its Cell-based blade for everyday workloads, however, for a good reason: IBM’s as-yet-unnamed blade will be powered by two nine-core Cell chips. By virtue of its design, Cell is tailor made for HTPC- and media-centric workloads—applications such as terrain analysis, oil and gas exploration, medical imaging, and data visualization.

In addition, officials said, the Cell-based systems might be tapped for computationally intensive business intelligence (BI) or data mining workloads—such as derivatives crunching in the financial services industry.

That’s the forward-looking information. The big news, for most prospective customers, is IBM’s BladeCenter chassis redesign—BladeCenter H—which (at 15.75 inches) is almost 30 percent bigger than its predecessor.

IBM says the retooled chassis can support ten times as much internal I/O capacity (up to 40 Gbps) and can be paired with an optional InfiniBand module (Cisco’s InfiniBand Switch Module) that’s up to four times faster than previous products. If that’s not enough, BladeCenter H supports 10 Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Fibre Channel connectivity, too.

BladeCenter H also ships with a revamped administrative facility, dubbed the Advanced Management Module, that includes IBM’s ubiquitous Director management tool along with additional Tivoli management offerings.

Optionally, Big Blue’s BladeCenter H can be tightly integrated (via iSCSI) with System i5 (nee iSeries, nee AS/400) servers, too—such that customers can expose System i5 resources to operating system instances hosted on BladeCenter H. This could allow “customers to leverage notable benefits from the i5’s management capabilities to the betterment of both platforms,” says Charles King, a principal with enterprise computing consultancy Pund-IT Research. Thanks to new iSCSI integration (which is supported on i5/OS V5R4) System i5 shops can, for example, expose that platform’s virtual storage, networking, and tape resources to Windows Server 2003 engines running in BladeCenter.

On the hardware front, Big Blue announced another PowerPC-based blade system—the dual-core BladeCenter JS21—which it positions as a brawnier successor to its existing BladeCenter JS20 system. BladeCenter JS21 is based on the PowerPC 970MP chip, which also powers Apple’s G5 systems. It’s scheduled to become available in March.

IBM officials trumpeted BladeCenter JS21’s power (three times the performance) and scalability (support for 16 GB of DDR2 RAM—roughly twice as much as its predecessor) attributes, but King flags another feature that, he says, could make the new PowerPC-based blade a marketplace winner. “The JS21 leverages native virtualization from IBM’s Power architecture, bringing to the BladeCenter features that customers of IBM’s System p5 and i5 solutions already understand,” he says. “[It] looks like a winner for a variety of commercial solutions where performance and consolidation are key issues such as scientific research and bioinformatics, grid computing … and oil and gas exploration.”

Elsewhere, IBM highlighted an ultra low-power BladeCenter HS20 system that offers what officials claim is the industry’s best performance per watt. The HS20 will tap Intel Corp.’s forthcoming “Sossaman”-class Xeon processors, which are based on the chip giant’s mobile Pentium (or Pentium M) architecture.

About the Author

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

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