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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 17th May 2010 08:02

Big Blue's big iron: The Biggening. Screening 2010

'This enormous mainframe will devour us all'

IBM, like other server makers, has rolled out a bunch of new iron this spring, but still has a ways to go to completely revamp its product lineup in 2010, as it plans to do.

The company rolled out its first machines to make use of the eight-core Power7 processors in February, the midrange Power 750 (with up to four processor sockets) and the bigger midrange Power 770/780, which is essentially a version of the Power 750 that adds in NUMA clustering to scale up to four chassis and 64 cores. In April, IBM put out a single-socket, eight-core blade server called the Power Systems 701. The company also added a double-wide unit that uses the same NUMA-oid SMP clustering to create a two-socket blade, called the Power Systems 702 with double the oomph. The PS700 blade is a single-socket blade with a half-dud Power7 chip (only four cores) and half as many memory slots.

IBM has said that the next high-end machine, due in the second half of this year, would support 256 cores (that means 1,024 threads) in the same thermal envelope as the current 64-core, 128-thread Power 595 server that has been the top of the line for several years in the IBM AIX/i lineup. It looks like IBM is using a similar 32-socket architecture to make this future big bad box, presumably to be called the Power Systems 795, and it will probably sport as much as 8 TB of main memory. The important thing is that it will have four times the cores in the same thermal envelope, and right now, each Power7 core is delivering more grunt (on online transaction processing work, at least) than the Power6 and Power6+ cores.

IBM has been pretty vague about what to expect at the low-end, but then company has said that it will offer a kicker to the entry Power 520 server, which comes in rack and tower flavors, that offers an upgrade path into a Power7-based machine - presumably to be called the Power 720. There were hints that IBM was working on two entry Power machines from calls for techies to help work on the documentation; it is reasonable to guess these machines were to be called the Power 710 and Power 720, and it is also reasonable to guess that the Power 720 should be about half of a Power 750 - meaning two sockets - and that the Power 710 should be a single-socket box. This would be roughly analogous to the PS701 and PS702 blades.

That also suggests that there will be a Power 700, a single-socket machine with only four-cores activated and crimped memory capacity. But Ross Mauri, who is general manager of IBM's Power Systems division, told attendees of the COMMON midrange systems user conference two weeks ago that Big Blue was working on four entry Power Systems machines. One might assume one of them is a kicker to the Smart Cube appliances that IBM has been selling in India and the US. Mauri did not provide specifics on these entry Power machines.

"More than a mainframe ... something unique in the industry"

Neither did his boss, Rod Adkins (general manager of the Systems and Technology Group which makes and markets Big Blue's servers, storage, chips, and systems software). But Adkins confirmed that the entry and high-end Power7-based systems were slated for the second half of this year and that IBM also had plans as of March to deliver high-end machines based on Intel's Xeon 7500 processors and using its own homegrown eX5 chipset. IBM announced NUMA-scalable blade and rack servers using the eX5 chipset, including memory expansion modules unlike anything it has ever delivered with a server before.

The HX5 blade server (two-socket, expandable to four by going double-wide) and System x3960 (two-socket) and x3850 X5 (four-socket) X5 rack servers start shipping on June 24. Adkins, speaking at IBM's annual investor event in New York, did not give out any specifics about the future eX5 machines, but it is likely that IBM will deliver a four-chassis NUMA-like SMP machine as it does on the current System x lineup and with the Power-based servers, most likely based on the System x3850 X5 chassis. That should mean 16 sockets and 16 memory slots per 4U chassis, and using 16 GB sticks, which adds up to a machine that can span 128 cores and 1 TB of memory without resorting to Max5 memory extenders.

IBM has said very little about the future System z11 mainframe, has been anticipated since IBM conceded it was coming last October when the mainframe biz slowed down and which IBM admitted more recently in discussing its first quarter financials that the new mainframe is due in the second half. IBM has said very little about the mainframe engines in these machines, but as El Reg has previously reported, the scuttlebutt is that IBM will stick with the four-core configuration used in the current z6 engines in the System z10 mainframes and crank the clock on the chips to boost performance that way. Mainframe operating systems don't scale well past 64 cores in a single system image, so cranking the clocks to 5 GHz or so, as some have suggested will happen, is a good use of the shrink from 65 nanometer to 45 nanometer wafer baking processes.

What Adkins did say about the future IBM mainframe due in the second half of this year is that it would be a "system of systems," including both Power and x64 server blades under its skins and allowing the "ability to integrate across the data center." Adkins made some noise about this being "more than a mainframe" and "something unique in the industry." But that's not so. IBM's own AS/400 midrange systems have had x86 and x64 co-processors since 1994, and the Unisys ClearPath mainframe line has offered hybrid MCP and OS 2200 mainframe engines mixed with Xeon engines running Windows and Linux for more than a decade, and these Xeon engines now support emulated versions of MCP and OS 2200, too.

This new IBM mainframe is also supposed to include what Adkins called "special purpose analytic optimizers," which probably means running Cognos and SPSS routines on these Power or x64 blade servers slotted into the System z11 box instead of on much more expensive mainframe engines.

No word on Opteron-based systems using the new twelve-core 6100 series or forthcoming eight-core 4100 series processors from Advanced Micro Devices. IBM has been as quiet as a mouse about its plans for Opteron-based machines. Just like Oracle, formerly known as Sun. ®

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