IBM introduces new chip set for Intel servers

New server-level chip technology set for delivery by IBM in October could let users run enterprise applications on Intel-based servers in a more flexible and economical way than current approaches allow, according to analysts.

Called Summit, the new chip set uses a building blocks approach to let users buy relatively small four-processor Intel servers and then snap on up to 12 additional processors, plus more memory and other components as their computing needs increase.

"It's the first truly modular approach in the Intel world," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire, after IBM announced Summit today. "This is not meant to be a mainframe killer, but [it's] a very hefty midrange technology."

In an endorsement of Summit, Intel said it will use the chip set to test and validate the enterprise-readiness of its upcoming 32-bit Xeon MP server processors as well as the next version of its 64-bit Itanium chip, code named McKinley and planned for release next year.

Initially, IBM said, Summit will join four Intel Xeon MP chips into a basic server unit. Scalability ports built into the chip set will let users tie together as many as four of the nodes to form either a single 16-processor symmetrical multiprocessing system or up to four separate servers capable of sharing system resources such as memory and I/O.

The approach gives users a "very cost-effective way of building large, scalable servers using commodity building blocks. ... It will fundamentally change the pricing structure" in the PC server market, said James Gargan, an IBM vice president. IBM officials said the company's first servers featuring Summit should become available late this year, although Intel indicated that the Xeon MP chip isn't likely to be released until early 2002.

Unisys Corp. has been shipping a system with similar capabilities for close to 18 months and has already installed more than 400 of the ES7000 machines at prices running as high as US$700,000. Like Summit, the Unisys systems can be expanded in increments of four processors.

But the ES7000 is more scalable and can grow into a 32-processor system capable of supporting multiple operating systems within the same cabinet, said Mark Feverston, vice president of enterprise servers at Unisys. IBM's move "validates our decision to pursue opportunities in the high-end Intel market," Feverston said.

Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA) servers sold by IBM itself and by rivals such as Silicon Graphics Inc. and EMC Corp.'s Data General division also support far more Intel processors than the Summit technology will accommodate.

But there are differences between the three approaches, Eunice said. Unisys users pay for the modularity of the ES7000 upfront by buying a large box that they can then populate with additional resources, he said. And the greater scalability of NUMA boxes comes at a steeper initial cost, Eunice added.

While IBM wouldn't comment on its pricing plans for Summit-equipped servers, Eunice said they should be less expensive and more flexible, but also less scalable, than the alternatives. "The trade-off that IBM made here is that ... they're not able to go to the lofty heights that servers from companies such as Unisys and [EMC] are able to," he said.

Summit also will incorporate several technologies from IBM's mainframes and Unix servers. Systems powered by Summit, for instance, will support mirrored memory cards for increased reliability as well as components that can be repaired, upgraded or replaced without bringing down the entire system.

In addition, IBM said a mainframelike remote I/O capability will let remote users add, remove or manage resources such as storage devices from a distance.

Such capabilities should help users to better exploit the computing power of high-performance chips such as the Xeon MP and those based on the 64-bit Itanium architecture, said Vernon Turner, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The high-end technologies that IBM is migrating into Summit should also put a lot of pressure on Unisys and other vendors of high-end Intel servers, Turner added. "This is about IBM taking its high-end technologies and migrating it into the commodity Intel space," he said.

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