IBM bringing gaming chip to blade servers

Bets on boost from high-end PowerPC in debuting BladeCenter and from unusual Cell chip in future servers to keep its edge.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
IBM introduced its overhauled blade server line on Wednesday, upgrading its core components and touting forthcoming options based on Xeon, PowerPC and Cell chips at the same time.

The revamp begins with a new chassis, BladeCenter H, and a higher-end PowerPC-based server, both due in March. Next-in-line machines will get a new slant from Intel's low-power Xeon and IBM's own unusual Cell processor.

blade overhaul

The moves, all first reported by CNET News.com, are designed to keep IBM's BladeCenter chassis in the No. 1 spot in the fast-growing market. In the third quarter of 2005, IBM garnered 42 percent of blade server revenue, with Hewlett-Packard second at 32 percent, and Dell in third with 9 percent, IDC said.

Blades are thin servers that plug side-by-side into a chassis. The chassis supplies shared resources such as electrical power and networking switches. The approach is designed to be more flexible than conventional stand-alone rack-mounted servers.

IBM's new 15.75-inch-tall BladeCenter H chassis is 3.5 inches taller than its predecessor. However, the design increases internal data transfer capacity tenfold to 40 gigabits per second; adds faster InfiniBand and Ethernet networking options; and includes more sophisticated self-management features. The system still accommodates as many as 14 blade servers, Big Blue said.

The base price for an empty chassis is $3,849, though it increases dramatically with the addition of blades. For example, adding seven dual-processor Xeon blades, each with 4GB of memory, a backup power supply, and dual Ethernet switches, brings the list price to just under $50,000.

The BladeCenter H price is ostensibly $1,000 higher than for the older BladeCenter, but in fact the difference likely will be greater: IBM on Tuesday launched a promotion through March 31 that cuts the price of earlier machines by as much as 50 percent.

A more radical departure for IBM than the design upgrade is its plan to begin selling blades using its Cell Broadband Engine processor. Those machines will arrive in the third quarter, the Armonk, N.Y.-based company said.

IBM's Cell processor was codeveloped with Toshiba and Sony, which will use in it in its upcoming PlayStation 3 console. It has a PowerPC 970 processing core supplemented by eight special-purpose engines for handling graphics or numeric calculations. Each Cell blade will use two of the processors and is twice the width of low-end blades, meaning that only seven can fit into a single chassis.

IBM believes the Cell blade will be useful for digital animation, scientific computing and medical imagines, said Juhi Jotwani, director BladeCenter Solutions.

Although IBM said it will sell the Cell blade under special arrangement, meaning there's no set price, it's not for the faint of heart right now. It requires a special version of Linux--Red Hat's Fedora, supplemented by IBM patches downloadable from a University of Barcelona Web site--and there aren't any applications available yet, said Ted Maeurer, senior manager of Cell for IBM.

"We're very early in the life of this technology. Today, we are just starting the collaboration with partners. One of the prerequisites to progress is having hardware out there," Maeurer said. However, he added, more than 260 potential partners have requested briefings under nondisclosure agreements.

Mainstream chip options
Blade chassis from different manufacturers can often handle varieties of blade server. For example, HP's BladeSystem can use blades with Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chip, Intel's Xeon or Intel's Itanium. Sun Microsystems' second-generation blade, due to ship later this year, will accommodate both Opteron and Sun's own UltraSparc.

For IBM, the choices are Opteron, Xeon and IBM's Power processor family. For Power chip fans, IBM will begin offering a new choice of blade: the PowerPC 970MP-based JS21. This 970MP processor has dual-processing engines, compared with the single core of the PowerPC 970FX used in the current JS20 blade.

The PowerPC 970 MP also includes a significant new virtualization feature that lets several operating systems run on a blade simultaneously. That's a major trend as computer users try to wring more use out of existing systems to cut costs and reduce growing electrical power demands.

The JS21 will cost $2,499 for a basic single-core model. IBM didn't immediately supply prices for dual-core models with more memory.

Another blade model will use Intel's forthcoming "Sossaman" version Xeon. That chip, based on its Core mobile processors that went by the Yonah code name, consumes much less power than conventional Xeons. The low-power HS20 blade is due to arrive in April with a starting price of $1,749.

Another option, due in the second quarter, will be a faster InfiniBand switch from Cisco, IBM said.