IBM Brings Mainframe Power to PC-Based Servers

IBM Corp. hopes to turn Windows 2000 servers into minimainframes, using a chip set that incorporates Intel Corp.'s upcoming 64-bit processor architecture. IBM claims its chip set, code-named Summit, will put mainframe capabilities on the Windows 2000 platform, helping IBM to differentiate its offerings from competitors' and elevate its products out of the low-end commodity market.

According to Tom Bradicich, director of server architecture at IBM, the Summit design would transfer IBM mainframe features such as hot-swappable CPUs and memory, software partitioning, clustering and a bus speed of 133 MHz to servers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 on Intel's forthcoming 64-bit chip architecture.

The chip set would also support technology from a new standards group, called Infiniband, that will replace the shared bus in PCs with a less-congested switching architecture.

Shared-bus architectures carry data at the same time over the same pathways.

Switching gives each component on the bus a turn to use the full bandwidth of the bus, rather than forcing all components to share the bandwidth.

Because Intel has delayed the IA-64's arrival until next year, both IBM and customers will have to wait until late next year to see if the plan works.

While 2001 seems far off in the future, at least one of IBM's target customers is already interested in the Summit chip set. Joseph Cirra, assistant vice president of MIS at Mellon Financial Corp. in Pittsburgh, says IBM's plans to beef up PC servers are in line with the banking and investment company's long-term information technology goals.

Because Windows 2000 is expected to be more scalable and reliable than its Windows NT 4.0 predecessor, many users are looking to the new operating system to help consolidate hardware. More reliable hardware could help this process.

Mellon is looking to Windows 2000 to allow the consolidation of hundreds of file and print and departmental data servers into scores of machines that can support more than 1,000 users each.

Cirra, who heard a presentation on IBM's plans in December, says the company needs more mainframelike availability from even its low-end servers.

Hot-swappable components and another promised IBM technology - "software rejuvenation," which would predict upcoming server failures - are key to high availability, says Cirra. Software rejuvenation monitors software performance and memory usage in an effort to identify potential memory leaks and other problems that can take a server down.

"Server uptime is a metric we base our performance on," Cirra says. "We don't have the leeway of downtime anymore."

In the near term, Cirra says, Mellon plans to use IBM's Cornhusker clustering extensions to Microsoft's clustering services to expand Windows 2000 Advanced Server beyond two nodes and Windows 2000 DataCenter beyond the four nodes supported out of the box by Microsoft. Cornhusker initially will offer eight-node clustering and will be available in the second quarter of this year, according to IBM.

IBM's Summit is one of several product announcements users can expect PC server vendors to make over the next year, says analyst Joe Greuner at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. Vendors are trying to differentiate their Intel-based products and at the same time create new high-end markets for traditionally low-end machines.

"They still have a way to go,"Greuner says. "The (vendors) are trying to help Intel in that process."

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