IBM puts power in new "blade" server

Big Blue unveils a prototype of a new high-end, compact server that will include a version of its Power processor.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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IBM unveiled a new "blade" server prototype Tuesday that uses its Power processor, putting Big Blue a step ahead in the race to squeeze high-end chips into compact servers.

Some of the world's largest server companies--IBM, Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard--have all dived into the market for blade servers, compact computer systems that are able to fit side-by-side into a larger chassis.

Blade servers became popular as a method to stack a number of low-end servers into a small area to save office space. Now, that original concept has been expanded to higher-end servers with more complex processors.

Low-end servers have typically used Intel Pentium chips. Now, more powerful blade servers incorporate Xeon processors. IBM is continuing this trend by using Power processors--the 64-bit family of chips that drive its pSeries Unix server line--for its blade servers.

IBM on Wednesday unveiled a pair of dual-processor blades during a customer conference in Palm Springs, Fla., said Tim Dougherty, IBM's director of blade strategy.

IBM's pSeries servers typically run Unix, but for its Power blades, the company expects the Linux operating system to be more popular, he said.

IBM expects customers with technical computing needs, such as the formation of supercomputing "clusters," will use its Power blade servers, Dougherty said. Linux, available for free and open to customization, is more widely used among supercomputer customers.

"I think people will predominantly be looking for the Power blade to be running Linux," he said. The servers will also run AIX, IBM's version of Unix, he added.

Blade designs are likely to catch on because they emphasize better management features and share infrastructure, so fewer components, such as power supplies, are required, said Illuminata analyst David Freund. Ultimately, most servers with four or fewer processors will likely be blades.

"For the four-way and down, they are a preferred form factor for rack-mounted servers going forward, regardless of processor," Freund said.

Servers run round-the-clock computing tasks, managing e-mail accounts or reconciling bank account transactions. Early blade servers managed low-end computing tasks, such as serving Web pages, but the higher-power models are geared for more complex tasks, such as running the interface for an online bank.

Dougherty didn't disclose which member of IBM's Power processor family the blade servers would use, but acknowledged that it could use a repackaged version of the Power4 processor used in IBM's high-end Unix servers. In current products, the Power4 is packaged in groups of four into large, power-hungry "multichip modules" ill-suited for skinny blade servers.

The company said that it plans to build servers that use the Power4 processor without the multichip module.

One advantage of the Power4 over competing chips is that it actually has two processors on each slice of silicon, making it easier to build a dual-processor blade server.

While IBM is ahead of competitors in the hardware designs of these blade servers, Hewlett-Packard has the lead in creating software to manage such systems, Freund said.

Sun and HP also are working on blade servers with their own competing chips. Sun had expected that it would sell its first UltraSparc blades this year, but a representative said Wednesday that the product might ship "within the next two quarters."

HP is selling increasingly powerful general-purpose blades, but doesn't plan to use its own PA-RISC chip for those products. Instead, it will use Intel's Itanium processor, a company representative said.

IBM's blades incorporate an expansion card that connects each server to a high-speed communication network. Current blade products will use that facility to connect to special-purpose storage data networks that use the Fibre Channel standard. But the technology will also work for networks and switches similar to the Myricom network popular in supercomputing clusters.

IBM will include not just the networking equipment for each server, but also the switch that joins the servers, Dougherty said. "We talk about having a cluster switch available in 2003...integrated into our chassis," he said.

Dougherty declined to say when the Power blades would be available, but added that he didn't expect a release this year. The company will start with one- and two-processor blade servers, extending to four-processor blade servers at a later date.