IBM brings memory flexibility to x86 servers

IBM is planning to release a new class of x86 servers that treat memory, processors and solid-state disk as interchangeable components, saying a more flexible server is needed to satisfy the requirements of virtualized data centers.

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IBM's new eX5 server line, based on Intel's upcoming Nehalem-EX chips, is an early example of what Gartner calls “fabric-based” computing, which allows customers to scale up memory and other resources without necessarily having to buy a new server. IBM says its goal is to move beyond today's industry-standard servers to offer something more scalable and tuned to fit demanding workloads.

Today, “if a user needs more memory and only more memory, the user has to buy a whole new server,” says Tom Bradicich, IBM fellow and vice president of systems technology.

For three decades, x86 servers have been based on a desktop PC architecture that locks memory and processors together, and that model is becoming outdated and contributing to sprawl and the underutilization of individual servers, Bradicich says.

“Fundamentally, we don't think it's a good strategy to allow the base architecture of the desktop PC masquerade as an enterprise server,” he says.

IBM's eX5 servers will come in blade and rackmount configurations, with the first ones being released later in March. IBM is taking the Intel architecture and adding a chip of IBM's own design that reduces latency between memory and processors. IBM claims the new servers will improve database performance by a factor of 30 over current systems, while greatly improving performance-per-watt and virtual server density.

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said IBM's use of memory will be interesting to customers with virtualization deployments.

“Memory is a big deal with virtualization, because one of the things we're seeing with virtual servers is you tend to run out of memory before you run out of CPU,” Haff says.

IBM is making its announcement ahead of Intel's Nehalem-EX unveiling, expected for later in March. But IBM won't be the only vendor addressing memory needs of virtualized data centers, Haff says.

Cisco's Unified Computing System has “Extended Memory” technology, and other server vendors can be expected to unveil new memory capabilities based on the latest Intel processors, Haff says.

IBM says eX5 is part of its plan to overtake HP in the x86 market. Haff said IBM seems to be adapting its mainframe and Power strategy to the x86 space by tailoring products to fit specific workloads.

The new servers will include a blade system, a two-socket rack-mount server and a four-socket rack-mount server.

The servers will allow customers to add up to 32 DIMMs of memory, and several terabytes of flash storage to improve I/O throughput, Bradicich says. Customers can also add processors in quantities of either two or four.

Gartner has predicted that fabric-based servers will end up costing significantly more than today's standard x86 machines, but IBM contends that the approach will also allow enterprises to purchase fewer systems.

“This is our first manifestation of taking the PC out of the PC server and making true enterprise capabilities,” Bradicich says.

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