IBM ships 5.2GHz chip, its fastest yet

A chip in IBM's new zEnterprise System clocks in at 5.2GHz. The fastest IBM microprocessor to date is targeted at mainframes. It packs in four cores, plus a respectable helping of DRAM.

IBM 5.2GHz zEnterprise processor
Testing on IBM's new 5.2GHz processor pauses for a publicity photo. PRNewsFoto/IBM

IBM's newest chip for mainframes boasts one of the highest speed ratings to date and will go into Big Blue's fastest mainframe computers.

IBM, no stranger to cutting-edge chip designs, will use the new 5.2GHz z196 processor in mainframes targeted at businesses managing huge workloads, such as large banks and retailers.

Why the need for more than 5GHz of speed, one of the highest frequencies of any commercial processor to date? IBM cites a study by Berg Insight, showing that the number of active users of mobile banking and related financial services worldwide is forecast to increase from 55 million in 2009 to 894 million in 2015. IBM's customers need all the horsepower they can get to handle these staggering data processing loads.

Big Blue's zEnterprise mainframe technology is the result of an investment of more than $1.5 billion in research and development for the zEnterprise line, as well as more than three years of collaboration with some of IBM's top clients around the world, the company said.

The processor itself packs in four cores, plus a respectable helping of DRAM--what IBM calls eDRAM--inside the processor module. Getting DRAM inside a processor module is quite a trick, as DRAM, or dynamic random access memory, is typically on a separate module inside a computer (just think of the RAM upgrade boards that plug into a PC's motherboard). The patented IBM eDRAM technology allows it to place dense DRAM caches inside its processors, which boosts performance.

Intel, by comparison, has its own very fast mainframe-class server processors, such as the Xeon X7560 processor, which integrates eight cores, in a 2.26GHz processor. Many consumer Intel chips also boast a new technology called Turbo Boost, which dynamically "overclocks" (speeds up) the processor to very high speeds, when needed by an application. (Intel also offers its 4-core Itanium 9300 "Tukwila" processor for high-end servers with 30MB of on-chip cache.)

IBM z196 specs:

  • Frequency rating: Up to 5.2GHz
  • Core count: 4
  • Transistor count: 1.4 billion
  • Level 3 Cache memory: 24MB, implemented as eDRAM
  • Level 4 Cache memory: 192MB
  • Memory controller: on-board DDR3 RAM controller with RAID ("RAIM") support
  • Manufacturing process: IBM 45-nanometer CMOS SOI (silicon-on-insulator)
  • Manufacturing site: East Fishkill, NY
  • Architecture: IBM Power7

The mainframes are pretty impressive too. The zEnterprise 196 systems contains 96 processors capable of executing more than 50 billion instructions per second, about 17,000 times more instructions than the Model 91-- the high end of IBM's popular System/360 family--could execute in 1970, the company said.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.


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