IBM readies modular Intel-based servers

New server-level chip technology set for delivery by IBM Corp. in October could help users run enterprise applications on Intel Corp.-based systems in a more flexible and economic way than current approaches allow, analysts said.

Called Summit, the chip set uses a "building block" architecture that IBM said will let users buy four-processor Intel servers and then snap on up to 12 additional CPUs, plus 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, N.H. "This is not meant to be a mainframe killer, but [it's] a very hefty midrange technology," he added.

Intel said it will use the chip set to test the enterprise-readiness of its upcoming 32-bit Xeon MP server processors and the next version of its 64-bit Itanium chip, which is due out next year.

Initially, IBM said, Summit will join four Xeon MP chips together into a basic unit that can be expanded to form either a single 16-processor system or up to four separate servers that share resources.

IBM officials said the first servers featuring the new technology should become available late this year, although Intel indicated that the Xeon MP chip isn't likely to be released until early next year.

Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys Corp. has been shipping a similar system for almost 18 months and said it has already installed more than 400 of its ES7000 servers, which cost up to US$700,000 and support up to 32 processors in one cabinet.

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

But the three approaches differ, 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.

Summit will incorporate several technologies used now in IBM's mainframes and Unix servers. Such capabilities should help users better exploit the computing power of chips such as the Xeon MP, said Vernon Turner, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

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