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Merrill Lynch buys IBM's iDataPlex blades

But with whose cash?

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In a shameless effort to show that someone in the financial services industry is still investing in technology - and relatively exotic new blade server technology at that - IBM has announced that brokerage house Merrill Lynch, soon to be part of the Bank of America behemoth after running into BoA's welcoming arms in mid-September.

IBM launched the System x iDataPlex machines back in May. Rather than launching these boxes for general consumption by IT shops, the iDataPlex servers - which offer much higher density that many of the rack or blade servers currently sold by IBM and its competitors - are custom built for buyers and only offered on a special bid basis.

At the launch in May, IBM claimed that iDataPlex iron uses 40 per cent less power and provide five times the compute density rack servers. (It looks like IBM compared dual-core processors in the racks with quad-core chips in the iDataPlex, but the company was not explicit.)

The initial iDataPlex blades are based on Intel's "Harpertown" quad-core Xeon processors, but IBM could eventually create blades using Opteron chips or its own Power6 processors. These blades only officially support Linux at the moment, but the x64 blades can support Windows or Solaris, and Power6 blades, should they come to market, could run AIX, Linux, or even i5/OS on Power chips, too.

The iDataPlex blades do not include redundant power and cooling (and power consuming) technologies that typical rack servers have. Since the iDataPlex servers are geared for Web or HPC applications that are, by their very nature, spread across many machines and run in a stateless mode anyway, the redundancy fattens up blades and prices.

The iDataPlex servers plug into a rack that has two columns of 15-inch servers, as opposed to the 19-inch rack equipment that is standard in data centers. The change in form factor and rack style is accounting for a lot of density improvement. The iDataPlex setup is supposed to be cooled by so-called Cool Blue water jackets, which IBM puts on the back of racks and hooks right into water-cooled CRAC units inside the data center to more directly remove heat from the servers. Even without the water jackets, the iDataPlex setup is said to be 20 per cent cooler than a comparable set of rack servers.

Merrill Lynch would not let IBM say exactly how much iDataPlex iron it has bought, but a source at IBM did confirm that these are not freebie units and Merrill Lynch is indeed paying for them. Of course, we'll see who is actually paying for them once the crashing and bailing out is done. All that Jeffrey Birnbaum, chief technology architect at the brokerage house, would say is that Merrill Lynch was buying the iDataPlex machines because of the power, cooling, and density benefits.

Yahoo! and Texas Tech University were early customers for iDataPlex machines back in May, and IBM has put a bunch of these into its Blue Cloud utility computing centers, too. (These centers have machines set up with the open source Hadoop parallel computing environment created by Google, the Linux operating system, the Xen hypervisor, and various Tivoli systems management tools.) NASA has bought a few racks of iDataPlex machines to build a supercomputer in a Maryland facility, Microsoft has bought a few racks to play around with its Windows HPC Server 2008 parallel supercomputing variant, and a "major energy company" based in the United States is set to announce an acquisition of the machines in a few weeks, according to IBM. ®

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