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Big Blue updates Bladecenter, unveils Cell-based blades

At an event in New York yesterday, IBM introduced the first Cell-chip based blades and updated its Bladecenter portfolio.

NEW YORK -- IBM introduced a new blade technology that it claims increases bandwidth across its blade servers tenfold. The new System, called Blade-Center H, was announced Wednesday in conjunction with several new blade offerings.

The roll out included IBM's first server based on the Cell processor which the company says will drastically improve the capabilities of businesses that run graphic-intensive or numeric applications.

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Analysts are most impressed with the IBM's new Cell-based blade and suggest it could take the industry in an entirely new direction. According to Charles King of Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT, the Cell BE will broaden BladeCenter horizons into the realm of high-performance computing. "It could literally change the landscape of compute-intensive and broadband media applications in areas including digital media, medical imaging, aerospace and defense," he said.

Blade servers are thin computer systems that, like books on a shelf, can be individually pulled in and out of a specially-designed chassis that supplies shared networking and power infrastructure. IBM claims its chassis, known as BladeCenter, currently hosts the highest blade density of any major computing vendor -- a claim vaunted as more businesses turn to blades as a way to cope with sprawling data centers.

With a new Cell BE processor at the helm, IBM said its nine-core Cell blades will help companies run highly visual applications in real-time by accelerating key algorithms like 3D rendering, compression, and encryption.

Cell processors recently have been at the tip of tongues as they are slated to power the upcoming Playstation 3 game console. But IBM's Cell BE was designed for a lot more than games, including demanding workloads in digital media industries such as medical imaging, aerospace, and defense.

Tom Burns, director of post production infrastructure for Technicolor, said that regarding animated movies, turnaround time between pilots and pre-production is essential to keeping the peace with studios who drop millions on good ideas but remain wary until they see the picture taking shape. On his last project, the IT infrastructure was assembled and ready before they were finished hiring qualified animators.

"The Toy Stories, the Finding Nemos, Madagascars, The Shark Tales, Disney's upcoming The Wild -- you cannot make these kinds of movies without bladeservers," Burns said. "You just can't. I mean you can. But it takes about 1,000 CPUs in two and a half years to make one of these 3D animated pictures. As an IT manager, can you imagine plugging in a thousand power cords?"

IBM intends to make the Cell-based system available for beginning in the third quarter of 2006.

The announcement Wednesday also spotlighted various other blade-based hardware from IBM:

  • The dual-core, Power-processor-based BladeCenter JS21, which will host built-in virtualization capabilities
  • The low-power Intel-based BladeCenter HS20, a dual-core blade designed for top-notch performance-per-watt, a gauge relevant in addressing the recent data center woes related to capping rampant power and cooling costs.
  • And the Cisco InfiniBand Switch Module, a new switch claiming to provide interconnect capabilities four times faster than the next generation down.

    IBM blade servers communicate with each other over a shared data pathway called a backplane, which also links the blades to networking switch modules that connect to other hardware through a variety of methods. IBM claims the backplane of the current BladeCenter can transfer data as fast as four gigabits per second and this next-generation design will increase to forty gigabits per second.

    According to IDC, the server blade market showed continued growth in 2005, with shipments increasing by 67.1% year over year and factory revenue gaining 87.9% year over year. Overall, bladed servers, including both x86 and RISC blades, accounted for 3.6% of quarterly server market revenue in a recent quarterly server tracking survey. IDC said IBM maintains the number one spot in the server blade market, with 40.9% market share, while HP maintained the number two position with 38.6% share.

    Analysts say the hype around blades as the answer to data center complexity problems may be inflated, but the notion of their importance is entirely justified.

    "If I had one word to describe the problem it would be scale," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata, after the main-event presentation Wednesday. "People are hitting the scalability limit, and blades certainly are a part of the answer."

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer

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