IBM Builds on Block Servers

Xeon processor featured in newest member of IBM's scalable block server family.

Intel's latest Xeon processor is featured in the newest member of IBM Corp.'s scalable "block" server family. The eServer x440, announced in March, can scale up to 16 processors using two 8-way server blocks.

IBM is taking a different approach in competing with Unisys' ES/7000, which packs as many as 32 processors into a cabinet-style unit. Instead, IBM has created a scalable Intel server that can be partitioned. The product consists of rack-mountable units using proprietary interconnects to scale processors and I/O. For partitioning, the servers use either hardware partitioning or virtual, software-based partitions. IBM says this approach gives users more flexibility than a monolithic server.

The new server is available in 2- to 16-way configurations. Up to eight Xeon MP processors can fit in a 4U chassis, and two chassis can be tied together with a proprietary "scalability port," which enables the system to scale to 16 processors. IBM developed its own chipset to achieve this scalability.

The eServer x440 follows IBM's shipment of the x360 late last year. The 4-way x360 gives enterprises the ability to add I/O through scalability blocks that reside in a separate 3U chassis. The x440 can also add six PCI-X slots with one of these chassis; the x360 cannot scale up processors as the x440 can.

As with IBM's NUMA-Q servers, processors are interconnected via an external L4 memory cache, allowing the chips to trade data at a high speed. The scalability port, which connects the two-server chassis for scaling, connects to the L4 cache, so the wire speed is about equal to the speed of the memory controller.

The x440 can be partitioned in two ways. Administrators can create up to two hardware partitions by using independent chassis. Software from VMWare Inc. is also available to create up to 64 software partitions.

Today, software partitions on the x440 are somewhat distinct from virtual partitions on the mainframe. They can scale up to one processor, so an 8-way server must run a minimum of eight partitions. Jay Bretzmann, manager of high-performance product marketing at IBM, says IBM is collaborating with VMWare to extend the software to support 2- and 4-way partitions in the near term.

According to Bretzmann, VMWare's virtual partitions make a compelling case for using x440 as a consolidation platform. Multiple file-and-print or other irregularly used servers can be moved onto a single server, reducing hardware and support costs.

IBM also positions the x440 as a platform for running e-business applications and notes some businesses may be interested in using it as a back-end server. "We think this is a database-capable back-end server," Bretzmann says.

When the x440 reaches the market, Bretzmann expects IBM to offer it primarily for Windows and Linux.