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IBM sharpens Power7 blades

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IBM seems to finally be getting serious about Power-based blade servers. Today's launch of the Power Systems 701 and 702 blades, which use the new eight-core Power7 chips, offer about twice the performance of their predecessors, the JS23 and JS43 machines that were delivered using dual-core Power6+ chips last April. The use the same snap-together design of the JS23 and JS43 machines, but have half the processor sockets and lower prices too.

The relatively low prices for the PS701 and PS702 blades are intended to push back against the impressive bang for the buck that the just-announced Xeon 5600 and 7500 processors from Intel and the Opteron 6100s from Advanced Micro Devices are offering in entry rack and blade servers. The price/performance of the PS701 and PS702 blades also presages the forthcoming Power 720 announcement, very likely to be a two-socket server using Power7 chips coming from IBM later this year.

And IBM could also put out a very aggressively priced single-socket entry box aimed at small and medium businesses with fairly fixed and modest workloads, akin to the Smart Cube appliances that IBM has been selling as a kind of modern-day AS/400 in India and then the United States. (Yes, the Smart Cubes were introduced to those two geographies in that order, and they are not available elsewhere yet). With half-dud Power7 chips being a dime a dozen, IBM will try to remove as many from the scrap heap as possible and put them to good use.

The PS701 blade is a single-socket blade server, unlike the two-socket JS23 blade server it replaces in the Power Systems lineup and more like the JS12 blade that IBM introduced in April 2008 with a dual-core Power6 chip. Back then, IBM had a two-socket blade, the JS22, and that was it in terms of scalability. But in April 2009, IBM took a page out of its Opteron server playbook and created a two-socket blade server that had built-in SMP ports across the HyperTransport bus, so two two-socket blades could be snapped together to create a double-wide blade with twice the sockets (and cores) and twice the main memory.

Such a double-wide blade was called the JS43 with the Power6+ lineup, and with the Power7 machines, the double-wide is called the PS702. IBM's new HX5 blades, based on Intel's "Nehalem-EX" Xeon 7500s, also have this double-wide architecture for SMP expansion, but it is obviously based on a different chipset than the one used in the Power Systems machines.

With the PS701 blade, IBM is keeping it simple. There is one processor SKU at this time: an eight-core Power7 running at 3 GHz. That's it. The blade has sixteen DDR3 memory slots, topping out at 128 GB using 8 GB memory sticks (the fattest ones that Big Blue supports at the moment on Power7 iron). The PS701 blade has a slot for a single 2.5-inch disk drive, which is a SAS unit with either 300 GB or 600 GB capacity. The PS701 blade has a dual-port Gigabit Ethernet controller, a SAS disk controller, a service processor, two USB ports and two PCI-Express mezzanine cards for connection to external storage or networks.

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