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IBM plans Power6 blades for next year

Moving IBM's high-end Power chip family into blades will mean an expansion of BladeSystem abilities and market.

Beginning with its Power6 dual-core chip, IBM will build its high-end Power processors into blade servers for the first time in 2007, marking a significant expansion of blade abilities.

Today, IBM's blade servers are available with the company's PowerPC 970 processors. But the Power6 will replace those lower-end sibling in blade servers, Tim Doughtery, IBM's BladeCenter strategist, said in an interview Wednesday. The first Power6 servers are slated for delivery mid-2007, and the Power6 blades will arrive "close to when we bring Power6 to the market," he added.

One major change coming with Power6 blades is the ability to run another major operating system. PowerPC 970-based machines can run Linux and IBM's version of Unix, called AIX, but the Power6 blades also will run IBM's i5/OS, the operating system used on its System i server family, Dougherty said. However, the i5/OS abilities won't be available immediately.

Today's PowerPC-based blades are used chiefly for high-performance technical computing tasks, but the ability to run i5/OS and to use mainstream Power processors likely will mark a shift toward conventional business computing tasks. That will expand the choices of lower-end Power systems, a significant change given that today's Power5-based models are more widely used at the higher end of the market.

IBM's BladeCenter chassis can accommodate either 14 "single-wide" blade servers or 7 "double-wide" models, such as those with four Xeon processors or two Cell processors. Different blades, including ones with different processors, can be mixed and matched to accommodate various workloads. Blades with two of Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chips are the most widely used models, Dougherty said.

IBM leads the blade server market, but has new competition from Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Dell.

With the Power6 blades, Big Blue likely will follow its current strategy of single-wide dual-processor systems and double-wide four-processor systems, he said.

IBM's Power4 was the first mainstream dual-core processor, featuring two processing engines. Power5 added the ability to run two simultaneous instruction sequences, called "threads," in each core. Power6 also has two dual-threaded cores, but adds the PowerPC 970's AltiVec abilities, which speeds up many calculation and multimedia operations.

A dual-core PowerPC 970 is available, but the chip line has lacked features for reliability, virtualization, power management and other elements of the higher-end model. In addition, PowerPC 970 systems couldn't run the low-level microcode needed to support i5/OS, Dougherty said.

Dougherty wouldn't say the PowerPC line has no future, but with AltiVec now incorporated into Power6, "I don't see it right now," he said.

The flexibility to run multiple hardware types is a blade server hallmark. IBM even has been tinkering with a mainframe blade, company executives revealed in 2003. But Dougherty said a more common mainframe approach is in effect "virtual blades"--dividing a single system into multiple "logical" partitions instead of using several physically separate devices.

"If I were a betting man, (the mainframe blade) is not one of the ones I'd be betting on in the near term," Dougherty said.

However, new storage abilities likely will be incorporated into IBM's blades in 2007, he said. The BladeCenter's "backplane"--the communications channel that connects all the blades--can transfer data with a variety of protocols. One of these is the Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) protocol used to communicate with hard drives, he said.

That means IBM can plug in a storage-specific blade that would make a single BladeCenter chassis an all-in-one system. That system then wouldn't require separate storage systems. Dougherty thinks that type of product would appeal to smaller companies as well as to larger ones that need a simple system for remote offices, such as bank branch offices.

"You'll probably see it in 2007 some time," Dougherty said.