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Big Blue finally punts an Opteron 6100 server

One System x rack only, no blades

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It only took five months, but on Tuesday it finally happened: IBM announced its first — and what could very well end up being its only — System x or BladeCenter server fitted with AMD's "Magny-Cours" Opteron 6100 processors.

With IBM being an early and somewhat enthusiastic supporter of Opteron server chips back when the 64-bit "Hammer" family of processors debuted in 2003, and with Intel being slapped around a bit for using its leverage in years gone by to try to dissuade server makers from adopting Opterons in the first place, you might have expected Big Blue to embrace the Opteron 6100s, which launched in March along with a refreshed Xeon 5600 and Xeon 7500 lineup from Intel.

But the reception for AMD has not been great, and IBM and some other server makers have been dragging their feet getting boxes out the door using the twelve-core chips.

IBM is, in fact, coming to market well behind upstart server maker Acer, which was AMD's best new friend on Magny-Cours announcement day with three rack and two blade servers, followed up quickly by Dell, with two rack-based machines, and HP, with four racks and two blades.

IBM has sold a number of different rack and blade servers using Opterons in the past, but has clearly done more engineering on Intel-based machines, presumably because that is what the company's enterprise customers prefer. However, that's probably more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.

With one Magny-Cours box — the System x3755 M3 — coming to market, IBM is not exactly throwing a lot of weight behind AMD's x64 variants, but it is still doing more than Oracle and AMD's former best friend forever, Sun Microsystems, which has killed off its Opteron-based server lineup without copping to it publicly. Cray, of course, is putting the Opteron 6100s into its XT6 and XE6 parallel supers, too.

The System x3755 M3 is a four-socket machine that comes in a relatively skinny 2U form factor. The server has 32 memory slots and uses DDR3 memory, like Xeon-based servers do these days. However, IBM is only supporting 4GB and 8GB memory sticks in the x3755, which means it tops out at 256GB instead of the theoretical 512GB that the AMD processor, memory controller, and chipset can support.

It's a fair guess that IBM does not want any AMD-based machines competing with the two-socket and four-socket Xeon 7500 machines that were announced in April with IBM's own eX5 chipset, which sports snap-together symmetric multiprocessing (FlexNode) for multiple nodes and memory extension (Max5). A 48-core, 512GB machine using less expensive Opteron processors could hit the sweet spot of the virtualization and HPC server nodes that IBM is chasing with its BladeCenter HX5 blade servers and System x3690 X5 and x3850 X5 rack servers.

The System x3755 M3 has room for eight 3.5-inch hot-swap SAS or SATA disks — another difference between the Opteron box and the Xeon 7500 box, which has the fancy schmancy 2.5-inch disks. The System x3690 X5, a two-socket, 2U rack box, has room for 16 2.5-inch disks or 32 1.8-inch SSDs. These are not options on the x3755, and that can only be intentional and can only mean that IBM wanted to do as little work as possible in making an Opteron 6100 machine and not doing anything that might upset sales of the two-socket x3690 X5 and four-socket x3850 X5 machines.

The x3755 M3 supports 2TB SATA drives, which are cheap, and has a quad-port Gigabit Ethernet controller on the system, an embedded RAID 0/1 controller with an optional RAID 5 daughter card, and four PCI-Express 2.0 slots (one x4, two x8, and one x16). The machine has an integrated service processor, like all System x boxes do, and three 1,100-watt power supplies.

IBM System x3755 M3

IBM's System x3755 M3 Opteron 6100 server.

IBM is supporting AMD's twelve-core Opteron 6172 (running at 2.1GHz), eight-core Opteron 6128 (2GHz), and eight-core Opteron 6134 (2.3GHz) processors in the System x3755. All of these are standard 80-watt parts. IBM is also allowing customers to plunk in an eight-core 1.8GHz Opteron 6124 HE (short for highly efficient, and rated at 65 watts) low-voltage chip or the top-end Special Edition (SE) part, the Opteron 6176 SE running at 2.3 GHz with all twelve cores spinning.

AMD actually put ten Opteron 6100s chips in the field, as you remember from our coverage of the launch of these chips, and IBM is ignoring some of the parts. This seems odd considering they are all compatible with the G34 socket and AMD chipsets.

On the software front, the System x3755 M3 supports Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 R2, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5, and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and 11.

A bare-bones System x3755 M3 with two eight-core Opteron 6128s (2GHz), 8GB of memory, and no disks costs $4,909. Boosting that up to two eight-core 2.3GHz Opteron 6134s raises the price to $5,749, changing to two twelve-core Opteron 6172s (2.1GHz) and 16GB of main memory makes the price of the base box $8,415. With 48 cores running at 2.1GHz, 128GB of memory, and eight 1TB SATA disks, the x3755 M3 costs $22,671.

IBM expects to ship the System x3755 M3 on September 30.

What Big Blue is apparently not planning on shipping — at least any time soon — are other machines based on the Opteron 6100s or their "Lisbon" Opteron 4100 baby brothers, which put six or eight cores into a single C32 socket and which are aimed at servers with one or two sockets.

"We carefully chose the four-socket, 2U space for the x3755 M3," explains Bob Galush, vice president of IBM's System x high-volume server line. "We have made no decision on expanding beyond this, and we are going to track the progress of this."

Galush said that there is an "opportunity to expand the relationship with AMD," but would not confirm that other future AMD machines, be they blades, racks, or towers, are in development. What Galush did say is that IBM believes that this 2U, four-socket machine will address specific customer needs where high core count in a compact space are key.

No wonder AMD is so lovey-dovey with Acer, which is trying to build a server business out of the carcass of Gateway. ®

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