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IBM Plugging Away in High-end Windows Space

In early 2002, IBM Corp. announced its first large Intel-based system, the xSeries x440, which was designed to scale from four to 16 processors.

Before Big Blue developed x440, its Intel-based systems were almost always based on chipset logic developed by third-party vendors, such as Intel Corp. or ServerWorks. x440 was a different animal, however: IBM based it on a homegrown chipset architecture, called Enterprise X.

From its inception, Big Blue positioned Enterprise X as a modular architecture – it even supports a discrete I/O chassis – that lets organizations expand the capacity of their servers in four-processor increments. What’s that, you say? Your workloads have exceeded the capabilities of your eight-way x440 system footprint? No problem – just add another four-way rack. Problem solved.

Not surprisingly, this approach has been a hit among customers. “They like our pay as you go strategy,” says Don Bullock, senior brand manager for IBM’s Enterprise X architecture, who cites IDC market research that pegs IBM as the leader in the eight-way space. “They like the advantage of being able to buy a four-way node today and being able to scale that to an eight-way or a 16-way as their needs change in the future.”

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Last year, IBM announced the second iteration of Enterprise X, the x445, which promised scalability up to 32 Intel Xeon MP processors. Thanks to a combination of Enterprise X chipset tweaking and new Xeon MPs from Intel, Bullock says x445 is a much faster animal. “The thing that the 445 best excelled at was performance -- roughly a 40 to 50 percent performance improvement over the 440, as measured by the TPC and SPEC benchmarks,” he says.

The x445 is designed to scale up to 32 processors, but Bullock declines to disclose how many – if any -- customers have ordered systems of that size. Instead, he says, the most likely route to a 32-way system configuration comes from customers who buy in at the eight- or 16-way levels and expand these systems to meet additional workload capacity requirements.

More to the point, Bullock argues, the sweet spot for Enterprise X is 16-way (and not 32-way) SMP. “The difficulty with the 445 product really comes in its limitations because of a 32-bit architecture, in spite of the fact that it is a very robust platform with high performance as a 32-way solution,” he says. “When we talk to customers and demonstrate the capability, what we find is that for the price/performance, 16-way is actually a better solution, given the limitations of the 32-bit architecture.”

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That brings us to the third generation of Enterprise X, which IBM plans to ship next year. This version of Enterprise X will support Intel’s new Xeon processors with 64-bit extensions – otherwise known as Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T) – and can address up to 1 TB of physical memory. “Going forward with the third generation of the Enterprise X Architecture, we’ll continue to push the performance envelope. As we go from 32-bit to EM64T, it really does unlock a significant amount of performance advantage that you’re able to enjoy with the next-generation product,” Bullock says.

Intel also has dual-core Xeon chips in its medium-term roadmap, which could allow IBM to effectively double the capacity of its high-end xSeries line. “In the future, it will be less about how many processors a single system supports and more about the number of cores that system supports,” Bullock says.

Although HP and Unisys Corp. are Microsoft’s most visible partners in the high-end Windows space, IBM also has a story to tell. Several years ago, for example, Big Blue founded an IBM Center for Microsoft Technologies in Kirkland, Washington. “That center was really one of the primary reasons that Microsoft introduced NUMA enhancements in its Windows Server 2003 operating system,” says Bullock. “Those NUMA enhancements give IBM greater performance than any of our competitors, which is something we’re able to take advantage of because of our NUMA design.”

IBM also resells Microsoft’s high-end Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition, Bullock confirms. “We have been selling Datacenter very effectively and actually exceeding our own internal estimates of sales of Datacenter since the beginning of this year,” he says. Most customers who tap Datacenter Edition are doing so to support large database images or server consolidation efforts, says Bullock. Even if customers buy into x445 at the eight-way level, they have a reasonable expectation of scaling beyond that, he observes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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