IBM plans next-gen server architecture

IBM and other systems vendors last week outlined a world of server technology that is both dazzling and problematic, with competing I/O subsystems and new server designs set to change the landscape.

At Strategic Research's Server I/O conference in California, IBM senior technical staff member Renato Recio presented IBM's concept of the "flexible server", a futuristic design in which clustered servers, non-uniform memory access (NUMA) nodes, and symmetric multiprocessing servers will be linked by new switching designs and communications protocols.

IT managers could conceivably assign server processing power to the different architectures, Recio said. The key element will be new switching technology that will optimise the message passing that characterises clustered computers, the cache coherency functions of NUMA designs, and the standard I/O functions used by all servers.

The flexible server is still in development, but the basics are in place, Recio said; customers may see the technology implemented in products within three years and housed in a single server or in an external switch linking existing servers.

One IT professional took the possibility of such a design with a grain of salt.

"If users do not see improvement, then I don't care what goes on in the 'black box,'" said Lou Mayo, program director of the National Space Science Data Centre at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US.

"Will more staff be required? Will it be more difficult to administer? How well do the architectures integrate? These are crucial questions," Mayo added.

Increasing I/O throughput and scalability has been at the forefront of major server vendors' design plans of late, with the proposed Intel-led Next Generation I/O (NGIO) and IBM-led Future I/O specifications in competition.

The gist of the conflict between Future I/O and NGIO revolves around whether Intel will choose to manufacture Future I/O chip sets.

That issue is still undecided, but, "Compaq, IBM, HP -- these are big [Intel] customers. And there are other chip set designers out there," said Ken Jansen, director of advanced server architecture at Compaq, in Houston.

Compaq vice president and general manager Mary McDowell also had sharp words for Intel: "It is ominous that [Intel] would part from us and the mainstream," she said.

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