AS/400 Hardware Breakthrough Raises Bar

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - The shift from client/server technology to network-based computing has shaken up network requirements and sent business leaders searching for more robust server technology. Network-based computing places heavy performance requirements on server platforms, forcing servers to up the ante to handle the burden of additional volumes of information created by the explosion of e-business.

When you think about your e-business strategy and application performance, thoughts of server processor speeds, memory, and well-designed software may spring to mind. You might not realize the importance of low-level hardware construction and design as a differentiating factor in e-business application speed, but you should. Businesses that take advantage of new low-level hardware advances, such as copper chip technology, will be way ahead of their competitors and, at the same time, keep customers and end-users happy.

The newest generation of IBM Corp.'s AS/400 has some unique attributes under the hood that could net a significant performance boost for your business.

Although AS/400 processor speeds have doubled in this V4R5 release, the biggest part of the performance boost comes from IBM's development and implementation of copper chip and Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI) technology. IBM estimates that these new technologies will provide a 25 to 35 percent performance boost over servers that use CMOS technology.

When you combine these innovative hardware advances with the AS/400's well-established record of reliability, its highly scalable architecture, and the expansion of support for major Web technologies such as Java and wireless technologies, the latest release of the AS/400 server line is worth looking into.

IBM is the first vendor to have developed and implemented production-ready copper chips and SOI technology, and the first implementation of the technology has been on the AS/400 server line. The entry-level AS/400 200 series models implement processor technology called PULSAR, which uses on-chip copper wiring technology. The higher-end AS/400 800 series models use the I-STAR processors that combine on-chip copper wiring with SOI technology.

In addition to providing a performance boost for servers such as the AS/400, this technology is also useful for wireless devices, because it reduces power and does not require the same amount of physical space as other chip technologies. But, before we look at where this technology might be headed, let's examine what is significant about copper chip and SOI technology.

Copper is king

For many years, server and client machines have steadily increased the speed with which we can access applications and data and communicate with other systems. Thus far, available hardware has been capable of keeping up fairly well with industry computational requirements.

Aluminum has long been used to connect the transistors in chips inside our machines. However, aluminum is close to reaching its physical limits and scientists have been working on alternatives.

With the effort to increase the performance of high-end servers and the move to smaller, untethered devices, we've pushed more and more chips into ever-smaller spaces. Aluminum is no longer capable of allowing electrons through at the speed now needed for the small products in demand.

IBM and other hardware providers have known this for some time and have sought solutions using other metals such as silver, copper, or gold. But these metals have proven challenging, as they do not interact well with silicon.

After nearly three decades of work, IBM found that by developing a barrier between the silicon and the copper, they could use copper wiring to interconnect transistors. This led to the arrival of the copper chip in 1997 and its implementation in these AS/400 servers.

SOI makes sense

SOI may sound like a geeky term, but it is straightforward to understand. SOI technology places a thin layer of silicon above an insulating layer of silicon oxide or glass. Transistors are then built on the layer above the insulating layer. The result is a reduction in capacitance in the transistors, which in turn yields faster operation.

After years of developing SOI technology, IBM officials have indicated that the technology is ready for production.

IBM plans to continue advancing SOI and new processor technology and it expects another similar leap in performance in the next two years. As the first company to perfect SOI to a production-ready state, IBM has a leg up on competitors that have also been developing next-generation hardware technologies.

Business, copper, and SOI

The introduction of copper chip and SOI technologies offers three major business benefits. In addition to the dramatic increase in performance, power usage is lower and the soft error rate is reduced.

SOI increases performance while emitting low voltage, compared to traditional technology. The high power used in traditional systems, such as Pentium-class machines, presents physical limitations. Using SOI technologies, power can be reduced by one to three times over traditional technologies, making SOI technology ideal for devices with limited physical space such as wireless devices.

The other benefit of SOI has to do with a term known as soft error rate, which results from problems with data held in memory. Soft error rates have been increasing as chip sizes decrease and power levels drop. SOI has been proven to significantly reduce the soft error rate.

What's next?

Today, IBM is exploring partnerships with producers of wireless hardware such as Motorola that would include further implementation of these innovative copper chip and SOI technologies. The company also expects to implement SOI technology on its RS/6000 line of servers later this year.

In addition, SOI technologies are expected to see another significant performance boost when IBM's forthcoming Power4 is introduced. This processor is expected to be implemented on both the AS/400 and RS/6000 platforms.

Given the number of known limitations in our current hardware architectures, examining the benefits of next-generation hardware architectures can prove highly beneficial. And those choosing the AS/400 as a strategic e-business platform will find that the new hardware advancements will provide a solid performance boost over other server platforms, enabling businesses to better meet the challenges of high-volume, network-based computing. When combined with the other standout benefits, the AS/400 is well worth a good look.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

THE BOTTOM LINE

AS/400's copper chip and SOI technologiesBusiness Case: Strategic investment in AS/400 servers that support copper chip and Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI) technology will yield an expected 25 to 35 percent performance boost over rival e-business server solutions.

Technology Case: New entry-level AS/400s use copper chip technology, while higher-end models combine copper chip technology with SOI for a significant performance boost. The AS/400 is the first server platform to introduce this technology.

Pros:

+ Significant server performance boost over rivals+ Low power consumption ideal for servers and wireless devices+ Reduced number of errors on data held in memoryCons:

- None noted.

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