Big Blue Makes Its Bid for Next-Gen Nehalem Bragging Rights

IBM beat competitors HP and Dell out of the gate, trumpeting a trio of new Nehalem-EX systems running on the fifth generation of its eXA architecture.

Sometimes when Intel Corp. introduces revisions of its server-oriented Xeon chips, IBM Corp. is late to the party. Big Blue reasons that it needs extra time to engineer its own Xeon chipsets.

Such efforts helped produce the first of IBM’s proprietary Xeon chipset entries -- viz., “Summit,” which was based on technology Big Blue acquired via Sequent Computer Systems -- as well as, in subsequent iterations, IBM’s Enterprise X architecture (otherwise known as eXa), which is now in its fifth revision.

They also helped give competitors Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Dell Computer Corp. head starts in the next-gen x86 server stakes.

That’s one explanation IBM offers for the lagging performance of its System x brand, which trails market-leader HP in the x86 server segment.

It’s a scenario Big Blue seems determined not to reprise when Intel introduces its new Nehalem-EX processors later this month. In fact, IBM was arguably first, by announcing a trio of new Nehalem-EX systems: its BladeCenter HX5, x3850 X5, and x3690 X5 servers. Although Big Blue isn’t yet shipping servers -- in part because Intel isn’t yet shipping silicon -- it used this month’s CeBIT expo in Hannover, Germany, as a forum to promote its new Nehalem-EX deliverables.

What’s more, IBM also unveiled the fifth generation of its eXA architecture (eXA v5), complete with a new feature (MAX5) that supports one-and-a-half times the memory density of Intel’s standard Nehalem-EX logic.

Not Last Year’s Nehalem

One reason Big Blue was able to ship eXA v5 on time, notes industry veteran Gordon Haff, a principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata, is that Nehalem-EX lends itself more easily to third-party enhancement thanks to its incorporation of Intel’s long-incubating QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) technology.

“IBM, Unisys, and NEC have previously created scale-up Xeon designs based on their own node controller designs and silicon. With Nehalem-EX, each OEM still needs to design its own custom node controller, but it now plugs neatly into a defined architecture rather than having to integrate into a front side bus that wasn’t really designed for that purpose,” he explains.

The downside, from Big Blue’s perspective, is that the new Nehalem’s third-party friendliness will likely encourage competitors to engineer value-added chipset architectures of their own. Rivals Bull, NEC, Silicon Graphics Inc., and Unisys, for example, all claim to be doing just that.

With Nehalem-EX, as with its other Xeon deliverables, IBM claims to deliver a good deal in the way of extra value. On top of Nehalem-EX’s “scalable memory buffer” -- which boasts two DDR3 memory channels (of two DIMMs per channel) and which can support a full 1 TB of memory in a standard four-socket configuration -- IBM touts a topology it calls “MAX5,” which ups the addressable memory ante. Big time.

“The MAX5 option uses QPI links to connect to a custom silicon chip [dubbed Firehawk] which has its own memory controllers,” explains Haff. The upshot, he points out, is that a MAX5-enabled server can support “half again as many” memory modules (up to a total of 3 TB of system memory in a two-node configuration) as a conventional Nehalem-EX server running on top of Intel’s OEM chipset silicon. “Memory-intense deployments such as virtual servers and database engines benefit especially from this expansion,” Haff points out.

Industry-watcher Gartner Inc. seems likewise impressed. After cautioning that Intel is still keeping a tight lid on Nehalem XE’s vitals – chiefly, its performance characteristics or power and cooling requirements – analysts Andrew Butler and George Weiss approvingly cited MAX5 and other System x-specific “innovations that should differentiate the platform and help IBM establish leadership in virtualization density” -- in addition, the analyst duo speculated, to challenging both HP and Dell for x86 market bragging rights.

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