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IBM's Cell blade boosted by memory and floating point gains

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IBM's Cell attack will gain some added muscle next month thanks to a new blade server. The system will run on a refreshed version of the Cell chip that includes better support for mathematical calculations and memory. As a result, the Cell-based blades could tempt a larger set of customers.

The QS22 blade serves as a follow on to the QS21 system, which will still be sold by IBM. The new unit runs on the PowerXCell 8i processor, which is a variant of the Cell Broadband Engine developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba and best known for its position inside the Sony Playstation 3 console.

The PowerXCell 8i chip has some attributes that carry it well out of the gaming space and out of the Cell's rather limited place in the server realm. For one, the chip can handle double precision floating point functions, which means that financial services type performing large calculations should be more moved by the Cell hardware. Secondly, IBM can support 16 times as much memory in its systems (up to 32GB) thanks to a shift away from Rambus to DDR2.

The QS22 ships with a pair of Cell chips and up to 8 DIMM slots, depending on the model. Customers will also find a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports and options for InfiniBand connections. The system has no internal hard drives, although an 8GB flash drive will be available in the second half of the year.

To date, customers have turned to the Cell-based systems for help accelerating certain tasks. IBM has enjoyed the most interest from oil and gas firms, the military and companies working with large images. These wins are, in part, the result of the Cell chip's ability to grab data and transcode it into different formats on-the-fly.

Many customers, however, have shied away from the Cell-based blade because of its limited floating point and memory support. So, now IBM is looking for more businesses, labs and government customers to come on board.

Los Alamos National Lab is currently building a massive cluster that will combine Cell-based systems with Opteron-based servers. This so-called hybrid computing model is gaining momentum, as companies turn to things like the Cell, graphics chips and FPGAs to accelerate operations not handled quite as well by general purpose chips.

Along these lines, IBM thinks it can take its supercomputer and high-performance expertise and extend it into the business realm with new approaches for handling common software.

In a paper made famous here, three IBM researchers revealed their intentions to tweak Blue Gene supercomputers for software such as Linux and the MySQL database. IBM now seems to have picked up on this R&D effort to form something called the High-Throughput Computing (HTC) mode for Blue Gene systems. "The HTC program will allow current and future Blue Gene supercomputers to handle complex computing tasks encountered throughout various industries as well as traditional workloads within science and research fields," IBM said.

When pushed for more detail on HTC, IBM told us it's more of a direction than an actual product right now, although the vendor has pledged to give us additional details in short order. In the meantime, there's a vague PowerPoint preso floating about that describes HTC. To complement the Cell blade, IBM has released a massive load of documentation around the chip architecture and has a free simulator available. In addition, IBM has issued an upgrade to its Software Development Kit (SDK) for Multicore Acceleration, bringing us up to Version 3.0.

That SDK is available now, while the QS22 ships in June.

You green types might appreciate that the QS22 shows 1.7 (single precision) and .8 (double precision) GFlops of performance per watt. The blade can hit 460 GFlops (sp) and 217 GFlops (dp) at peak.

The QS22 is available with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. ®

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