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California: Cisco gives out some details, finally

Just don't call it a blade server

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Yesterday's launch of the California blade system by Cisco Systems was a little short on the feeds, speeds, and pricing information. But if you want someone to buy a funky new data center gadget, you have to be a little more specific, and luckily Cisco has some server people who understand this.

Dante Malagrino, director of engineering at Cisco's Server Access Business Unit and a proud poppa involved in the creation of the California system, was keen on talking to El Reg about more details of the system. But, because some elements of the system are not yet announced, there were some limits on what he could say.

Take a look at this pretty picture before we pull the California system apart:

Cisco Unified Computing System Components

The Cisco Systems 'California' Unified Computing System

Let's start with the blade server chassis, the UCS 5100, which is a 6U form factor that mounts in a standard computer rack. Rather than mount its blades vertically, Cisco is doing so horizontally. There will be half-width blades and full width blades, both of which are generically known as the UCS B Series blade servers. (What happened to the A Series, you ask? My guess is they used earlier "Harpertown" Xeon chips from Intel and were the alpha designs for the systems.) The 5100 chassis will hold up to eight half-width servers or four full-width servers.

It is a fair guess - and Cisco isn't saying - that both blades use custom motherboards, since the memory expansion ASIC that the formerly independent Nuova Systems created, and which will, according to Malagrino, allow up to four times the maximum main memory per server that standard Nehalem machines will allow, has to be wired between the processor and the memory subsystems in the QuickPath Interconnect scheme.

But it could be that one blade (the full-width one) has memory expansion and the half-width blade does not, or that the full width-blade offers 4X memory and the half-width one offers 2X memory compared to standard boards. (I would guess the latter.) Either way, the B Series blade servers have to have enough room to put up to four times as many DDR3 memory slots on the motherboard compared to regular Nehalem motherboards.

How much memory could we be talking about? Let's take a look again at the Nehalem mobos from Super Micro, which we told you about last November. The X8DA3 mobo is a two-socket board based on Intel's "Tylersburg" IOH-36D chipset, and it has two pairs of six DIMMs and will support a maximum of 96 GB of main memory; DDR3 memory runs at 1.3 GHz, 1.07 GHz, and 800 MHz. A fatter X8DTN+ mobo is based on the same Tylersburg chipset and has nine DIMM slots for each processor socket, for a total of 18 DIMMs and a maximum capacity of 144 GB.

If Cisco can deliver blade servers that support 384 GB or 576 GB of main memory for two sockets, this California box will be a screamer on virtualized workloads. Then again, if Cisco can boost main memory, so can other server makers, either by themselves (as Cisco has done) or through partner ships with MetaRAM or Violin Systems, just to name two memory innovators.

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