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IBM goes networking and chip mad with new blade lineup

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IBM has unveiled a major overhaul to its blade server line that includes a new, networking-rich chassis and fresh variations on Power and Xeon-based blades. In addition, IBM has capitalized on the interest around the Cell processor by announcing a development blade that uses the multi-core chip.

Let's look at the new BladeCenter H chassis first.

This unit comes in at 9U, which is 2U more than IBM's current BladeCenter chassis. The extra space was needed to accommodate the networking gear inside the system. Customers can now slot a 4X Infiniband switch from Cisco into the IBM case, offering up to four times the networking performance over current systems. Overall, the zippy chassis and its new backplane supports four of the 4X Infiniband lanes and offers more than 40 Gigabits of I/O bandwidth to each blade server.

Existing blade servers can slot into the new chassis.

On the server side, IBM rolled out the JS21 blade that runs on a dual-core PowerPC 970MP chip - a product found in Apple's G5 computers. It also announced an ultra low power version of the Xeon-based HS20 that uses Intel's dual-core chip code-named Sossaman.

These systems will prove more interesting to most IBM customers than the new Cell-based blade product, although the Cell kit is an attention-grabber.

The Cell chip - built by IBM, Sony and Toshiba - is best known for its role in Sony's upcoming PS3 game console. IBM, however, will put two of the nine-core Cell processors on each double-wide blade, pushing the product toward high-performance computing applications.

IBM's partner Mercury Computer Systems already sells a development server based on the Cell and has a blade and an even more compact box on the way. The Cell chip's architecture relegates it to a limited set of server software - primarily applications used by scientists and engineers. IBM believes that there's enough room for two players to rumble in the Cell server space.

These are early days with the Cell servers to be sure. Customers have to work with IBM to get their hands on a specialized version of Linux built for the chip.

"With the current state of Linux on Cell, you can write special-purpose applications running on the prototype board while using the full performance of the chip," the IBM website says. "While most applications do not immediately run better on Cell, there is a lot of potential to port performance-critical applications to use library code running on an SPU for better performance.

"The base platform support is currently making its way into the mainline Linux kernel, and the SPU file system interface is on its way to being stabilized enough to be included in upcoming releases of the kernel and of major distributions."

On the management front, IBM has released software tools for improving the power usage on its blades. The company has long suffered from jabs that its blades run too hot, with some complaining that putting a full rack of blades in an average data center can be a harrowing experience. The software could help by allowing "customers to evaluate their exact datacenter power requirements and utilize blade power and cooling technologies to enable peak utilization", IBM said.

The new BladeCenter H chassis will ship in March, starting at $3,849. The JS21 blade also ships in March, starting at $2,499. The new Intel-based HS20 will ship in April, starting at $1,749. The Cisco InfiniBand Switch will be available in the second quarter of 2006, and the IBM Cell BE-based blade is scheduled for release in the third quarter of 2006. ®

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