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IBM's blade agenda: Cell chip, InfiniBand

Big Blue plans to demo the Cell blade, which is expected to to be used in high-performance technical computing.

IBM is expected to demonstrate a blade server next week based on the Cell processor the company is developing with Toshiba and Sony.

The Cell processor, which also is the brains of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 videogame console, has a PowerPC processing core supplemented by eight special-purpose cores to boost the chip's calculation abilities.

IBM is mum about how a Cell blade would be useful, but a good bet is high-performance technical computing. IBM has a major focus in that market, and the eight "synergistic processing engines" on Cell are good for high-speed calculations.

The Cell demo is expected at an IBM launch of its second-generation BladeCenter on Feb. 8 in New York. The new BladeCenter is expected to be called the BladeCenter H, according to sources familiar with the event. IBM declined to comment for this story.

IBM already holds the lead in the blade server market, and the Cell-based blade could signal an effort to keep that position by expanding into new technical computing territory.

Blade servers are a relative rarity in computing clusters; they often cost more than more ordinary rack-mountable models and come with reliability features that scientific applications don't require. But Cell blades could change that, because the chip's special-purpose calculation engines could significantly increase the amount of processing that can be done with a given number of blades.

Linux is popular in computing clusters, and IBM, Sony and Toshiba researchers released a version of Linux for Cell. That version includes the ability to load and communicate with simple programs in the special-purpose cores.

Cell's PowerPC engine can execute the same instructions as an IBM PowerPC 970 chip family, used in IBM's SJ20 blade servers and Apple Computer's older Macs. However, the special-purpose engines use different instructions, so IBM built support for the chip into the GCC used in software development.

Management features are a key part of the promise of blade servers, making a whole greater than the sum of several narrow blade servers plugged into a blade chassis. Sophisticated management features in some blade servers, for example, can move tasks from one blade to another if there's a problem on the first.

The BladeCenter H is expected to be equipped with new internal management features, one source familiar with the product said. In addition, the new chassis is expected to be the foundation later this year of an updated BladeCenter T, a model tailored for telecommunications customers and that can handle more extreme temperatures.

IBM also is expected to announce a new blade server, the JS21, that fits into both the first- and second-generation BladeCenter chassis. The JS21 uses the dual-core PowerPC 970MP, a chip that runs at 2.5GHz in current Apple's PowerMac G5 systems.

Big Blue's blades also will accommodate several x86 chips from Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, including the latter's "Sossaman" model, which is based on the Core Duo "Yonah" processor used in laptops and which consumes less power than mainstream Xeon processors.

Backplane boost
IBM has said the new BladeCenter includes a faster "backplane," the communications channel that links blades with each other and with networking modules that can be added to the chassis.

The new backplane supports the 10 gigabit-per-second data transfer speed of the 4x version of InfiniBand, a high-speed networking standard. Later this year, a 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet switch also is expected.

Cisco Systems, already a BladeCenter networking partner, is expected to extend its IBM relationship with an InfiniBand 4x switch. Cisco declined to comment for this story.

InfiniBand is popular today chiefly to connect computers into a high-performance technical computing cluster. But it also can be used to simplify situations in which servers must connect not only to ordinary Ethernet networks but also to storage-specific Fibre Channel networks.

Blades involve considerable engineering challenges in both hardware and management software. Because of that, the major server manufacturers--which collectively dominate with about 80 percent of revenue in the server market--see blades as a key way to distance themselves from lesser companies that have more generic designs.

Selling blades also is a way to latch on to a market whose growth far outpaces the overall server market. In the third quarter of 2005, worldwide blade server revenue grew 97 percent over the year-earlier quarter. That compares with 8 percent growth for the overall server market, according to market research firm IDC.

In the market, IBM was No. 1 with 42 percent of the revenue, with HP at 32 percent and Dell in third with 9 percent, IDC said.

IBM has been striving to make BladeCenter a widely adopted design, convincing Intel to join and launching the project to attract more partners. The idea was to consolidate the market and therefore simplify hardware and software development for partners that wanted to build products using blade technology. Thus far, though, no top-tier server makers have signed on.