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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 12th March 2009 06:02

IBM rejiggers x64 servers, blades

Fat Opteron plus new chassis, disks, SSDs

IBM this week has tweaked System x and BladeCenter server lines to give customers more options in terms of processors, disk drives, and solid state disks. The new gadgets are aimed more at getting the machinery current than in radically altering or re-engineering the System x and BladeCenter products in the wake of six months of declining sales for Big Blue in the x64 server racket.

First up, IBM is making a beefier configuration of the System x3755 server available, and it uses a nifty HyperTransport gadget Big Blue created a few years ago to boost Opteron server performance. The System x3755 machine announced this week has three 2.7 GHz "Shanghai" Opteron 8384 processors and 12 GB of main memory standard. Last month, IBM added the Shanghai chips to the System x3755 server as well as putting new Xeons in the System x3950 M2 and x3850 M2 servers, which scale up as high as 16 processor sockets.

But the System x3755 machine announced in February had a single Shanghai chip that ran between 2.4 GHz to 2.7 GHz and had only 4 GB of memory in its standard incarnation. Plus, it did not include the CPU Pass Thru Card, which plugs into one of the Opteron sockets, like the beefier System x3755 put out does.

The CPU Pass Thru Card is a HyperTransport accelerator co-processor that IBM added to the System x3755 a few years back which allows a machine with three processors to do more work than a normal SMP configuration with four processors. (That's using the term processor to mean "chip in a socket," not "number of cores"). Basically, you get the performance of four Opteron 8000 series chips for the price of three.

The x3755 also has some electronics wizardry called Xcelerated Memory Technology, which lets memory in all eight DIMMs per processor socket run at full 667 MHz speeds instead of having to cut back the speeds to 533 MHz. The net effect of this can mean a machine with less memory capacity can do more work than another Opteron server design where more memory capacity requires the speed to be dropped.

The Shanghai chips came out last November and were updated at the end of January with low-voltage Opteron HE parts and a higher-speed Opteron SE part. The standard Opterons run at 75 watts, while the HE parts, which range in speed from 2.1 GHz to 2.3 GHz, burn 55 watts and the SE part clocks at 2.8 GHz and burns an unattractive 105 watts.

IBM has not formally announced that the HE or SE parts in its System x rack servers yet, but as we previously reported, they have been available in IBM's LS22 and LS42 blade servers since March 6. And if you go out onto IBM's online store, there is a configuration of the x3755 with the 2.8 GHz SE part in it. Go figure.

Anyway, the hefty x3755 configuration will be available on March 27 and costs $12,569. If you take the same x3755 and put four of the same 2.7 GHz Shanghais in the box and put in 16 GB of memory (you have to add memory to each of the four processors, and 16 GB is as close as you can get to 12 GB with this restriction), the machine costs $15,213. You can see why IBM wants to peddle the CPU Pass Thru gadget, which costs around $100 on the street. IBM is charging $1,849 for a single 2.7 GHz Opteron 8384, and that is most of the difference.

BladeCenter rejigger

This week, IBM has also rejiggered its BladeCenter E chassis for blade servers. The E machine is distinct from other chassis from Big Blue in that it is aimed at customers who want to conserve energy and know they are going to be using lower-powered components. The BladeCenter E is a 7U rack-mounted chassis that supports 14 full-height blade servers, which is 2U smaller than the standard BladeCenter H chassis.

It has 1U of space for cooling on the top and bottom of the chassis because it assumes you are going to use hotter components and will therefore need 2,900 watt redundant power supplies and 240-volt power. There is also a BladeCenter S chassis for SMB shops, a 7U box that has room for six blades and storage and modest 120-volt power supplies, and other variants for telco and other ruggedized environments that want DC power.

The new BladeCenter E chassis comes with either 2,000 watt or 2,300 watt power supplies (up from just 2,000 watts with the prior E chassis, and now up to four power supplies) and now includes a module that tracks real-time power usage and provides statistics at the chassis level to administrators. IBM has also tossed in an ultraslim DVD drive and a USB 2.0 port that are shared by the blades. The E chassis using 2,000 watt power supplies costs $3,665, while the one supporting 2,320 watt supplies costs $3,999. Two power supplies come standard in the unit. All of IBM's blade servers can plug into this new E chassis or any other BladeCenter chassis IBM has ever sold.

Now, on to disk drives. The System x and BladeCenter machines now have hot-swap, 2.5-inch SAS disks in 146 GB capacities and spinning at 15K RPM. IBM has been peddling small form factor SAS drives spinning at 10K in 73 GB, 146 GB capacities already. It has also added a 300 GB 10K RPM unit. This means customers wanting to move to smaller drives do not have to sacrifice performance.

The 73 GB and 146 GB 15K drives have an average read seek time of 2.9 ms and average latency of 2 ms. The 10K drives in 300 GB and 146 GB capacities have a read seek of 4 ms and a latency of 3 ms. The existing 73 GB 15K and 146 GB 10K drives in the 2.5-inch form factors have been updated as well, replacing existing models, and all of the new drives, regardless of capacity or spindle speed, support 6 Gbps data transfer rates. The new drives will be available for selected System x and BladeCenter machines on March 31. Pricing for the new units has not yet been announced.

And finally, the System x and BladeCenter boxes are going to get new solid state disks (SSDs), which are also being plugged into the EXP3000 disk enclosure IBM sells to x64 server customers. The details of the new SATA-style SSDs are a bit sketchy, but the company says that starting on March 31, it will sell a 2.1 watt, 50 GB SSD for its BladeCenter blade servers in a 2.5-inch disk package, and that another 50 GB SSD drive designed for higher I/O operations per second (IOPS) will also be available (and presumably running hotter) in either a 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch form factor for blades and System x rack and tower servers.

At press time, IBM did not provide information on who was supplying the new SSDs to the company, and it did not have pricing information available. Nor did it detail what specific technology was used to make the SSDs. What it did say was that the SSDs support Windows, Linux (from Novell and Red Hat), and ESX Server (the hypervisor from VMware). And it said that in a two-thirds read and one-third write transaction processing environment, the SSDs would deliver up to 2,600 IOPS. By flash-based SSD standards, that is not particularly fast, but it is about ten times faster than a hard disk drive. The drive is a SATA-1 drive that supports 1.5 Gbps transfer rates, which is nowhere near the 6 Gbps rates of the SAS drives above. One would hope these 50 GB units are not going to be too expensive.

Since July 2007, IBM has been selling a 15.8 GB 2.5-inch SSD for its System x and BladeCenter boxes that costs $499. (A dual-drive SSD module sells for $999). This SSD was rated at more than 5,000 IOPS on reads and burned at about 2 watts. It is also a SATA-1 drive. ®

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