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IBM sneak peeks Nehalem EX iron

Goes modular with homegrown chipset

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At the CeBIT monster IT trade show in Hannover, Germany today, IBM will preview its forthcoming System x and BladeCenter servers based on the eight-core "Nehalem-EX" Xeon processors. While the Nehalem-EX chips have been pitched for the upper end of the x64 range, IBM is taking a different approach with its initial Nehalem-EX boxes and building modular rack and blade boxes with a fairly modest socket count.

With the Nehalem-EX chips expected before the end of this month - and their six-core baby brothers, the "Westmere-EP" chips - also due around the middle of the month, Big Blue is trying to get a jump on the PR gun like Cisco Systems did two weeks ahead of the quad-core Nehalem-EP Xeon 5500 launch last March. While IBM no doubt will have machines that support both processors, as will all x64 server makers who matter, the Westmere-EPs (which will be called the Xeon 5600s) are less of a big deal in that they snap right into existing two-socket Xeon 5500 platforms.

The big jump architecturally for two-socket machines will come with the "Sandy Bridge" Xeons in 2011. These will require a revamping of sockets, chipsets, I/O, and a slew of related technologies.

With the Nehalem-EX processors, the moment of big changes is now, since these processors will finally bring QuickPath Interconnect to Xeon boxes with four or more processor sockets. And as IBM is doing as it deploys the Nehalem-EX chips using its homegrown eX5 chipset, these big chips are also going to be deployed in smaller blade and rack boxes with some unique memory and processing expansion that is not possible using the Xeon 5500s or 5600s.

Silicon Graphics is taking a similar approach with its Altix UV shared memory blade-based supercomputer, which implements Nehalem-EX processors on two-socket blades and takes the unused connectivity ports on the chip that would be used to make four-socket SMP boards to hook the blades into SGI's own NUMAlink 5 supercomputer interconnect. As previously reported, Bull is working on a chipset called Fame D to create four-socket Nehalem-EX system boards for a future server design called Mesca, and like the current IBM eX4 and Power chipsets used in the Power 570 class of machines, it allows for up to four chassis to be lashed together in a single, cache coherent, shared memory, SMP box.

(IBM got the goodies to glue multiple nodes together, be they based on Xeon, Itanium, or Power chips, into an SMP setup thanks to its $810m acquisition of Sequent Computer Systems back in the summer of 1999. The eX5 chipset is the fifth generation of Sequent-inspired chips).

According to Tom Bradicich, vice president of systems technology at IBM's System and Technology Group, rather than start with big boxes with lots of sockets, memory, and I/O, IBM wanted to rethink the "PC server" with the Nehalem-EX processors. To that end, the eX5 chipset is going to not just allow for scalability at the socket level for processors, but do so in a more granular way.

Perhaps more importantly, given that servers are more memory bound than CPU bound these days, IBM is going to use the eX5 chipset and the considerably larger memory bandwidth and capacity of the Nehalem-EX chips to create two-socket and four-socket servers that can have additional memory slots - and lots of them - to be added to them without having to add sockets. Memory and sockets on the eX5 machines can scale independently, or together.

IBM boasts that the System x and BladeCenter machines that will come out this year are the fruits of a five-year, $800m effort. When they are launched later this month, it says that the eX5 systems will have six times the main memory of other x64-based servers, slash storage costs by 97 per cent (presumably through the option of flash memory), have 30 times the database performance (again, a mix of lots of cores, main memory, and flash disk), and 90 per cent better performance per watt.

While Bradicich was not at liberty to divulge all the details of the forthcoming Nehalem-EX and Westmere-EP machines, since Intel has not announced the processors yet, he could go through some of the features of the eX5 chipset and systems that Big Blue believes will help the company set itself off from the pack of x64 server makers. "We will offer the opportunity for companies to buy less IT equipment," he said.

That's something that perhaps only an IBM Fellow like Bradicich can get away with saying, since it implies that IBM won't make as much money. But IBM wants to make money dealing with x64 server sprawl, says Bradicich, and that means "letting customers only buy what they need and getting them to use what they buy."

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