IBM bolsters blade family with Cell upgrade

IBM will begin selling an upgraded version of its Cell chip-based blade server in October.

IBM has announced an upgraded version of its blade server based on the Cell processor, adding memory and data throughput for better performance on high-end applications such as graphics and finance.

IBM also shaved the size of the server, so users can fit 14 of the new IBM BladeCentre QS21s into each chassis, compared to seven units of its predecessor, the QS20. The new version could also function in a diverse blade environment, working alongside computers based on the x86 or PowerPC chip architecture to assign workloads to the most efficient platform, product line manager for Cell systems at IBM, Paula Richards, said.

"We're seeing many applications where users want to actually marry a quad-core Intel or AMD blade with a Cell blade, so they can use the standard blade for basic workloads, then push their mission-critical, exotic applications off to the Cell platform," Richards said.

IBM will begin selling the QS21 in October to users in industries that need to run visual computing tasks such as 3D rendering and time-critical jobs like compression and encryption. The system relies on the Cell Broadband Engine processor, created for Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation 3 gaming system by the consortium of IBM, Sony and Toshiba.

The QS21 features two 3.2GHz Cell processors, dual Gigabit Ethernet networking and Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5.1 OS. At its maximum density in high-performance computing clusters, the system can run as fast as 6.4 tera floating point operations per second (TFLOPS) in a BladeCentre H chassis, or 25.8 TFLOPS in a 42U rack.

"We're not trying to be a general purpose platform here. If you want to run your monthly statements or ERP, that's not what this is about," Richards said. "This is for time-critical, highly intense workloads such as financial applications, digital video surveillance, medical imaging or even digital media and entertainment. Jobs where time is money."

The product will supplement IBM's lineup of blade servers, which also includes products running on IBM's PowerPC chips, Intel's Xeon or Core 2 Duo chips, and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor.

By upgrading the performance of the Cell version of the BladeCentre, IBM would be able to reach more corners of the highly specialised field of high-performance computing, one analyst said.

Users bought the Xeon and Opteron BladeCentres for general purpose computing, the PowerPC BladeCentre for jobs in a Unix environment and the Cell BladeCentre for compute-intensive applications such as signal processing and image analysis, including designs from Mercury Computer Systems, a military and aerospace industry contractor, Insight 64 analyst, Nathan Brookwood, said.

"They all do different things, so this is a technology update instead of a big change in positioning," Brookwood said.

In concert with the QS21, IBM announced version 3.0 of its software development kit (SDK) for Multicore Acceleration, designed to streamline the process of application development for the new platform. IBM will launch the SDK for Multicore Acceleration on October 19, and launch the QS21 on October 26.

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