IBM Flashes New Blades

New blade technology is aimed at entertainment and high performance computing

February 9, 2006

3 Min Read
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IBM has overhauled its blade server product line, even using technology from the computer gaming industry in an attempt to offer what execs describe as Hollywood in a Box.”

The centerpiece of IBM's offering is a new blade with two nine-way Cell processors, aimed at the entertainment and high performance computing industries. Up to now, Cell processors -- jointly developed by IBM and Sony and used initially in Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 -- were more relevant to acne-ridden teenage gamers than CIOs. Now, IBM is aiming to change all that.

Execs at today’s launch event in New York City said the chips can speed up the algorithms used for visual applications such as animation, medical imaging, and oil and gas research.

At least one user is intrigued. Tom Burns, director of post-production at Toronto-based film company Technicolor will be looking at the new blade. “I could see that the pre-visualization stage, where the director develops the storyboard, could be greatly, greatly speeded up.”

Burns is keen to boost performance, particularly for the time-consuming and CPU-intensive "rendering" process used in animation. “There are a number of places in our business where the increased graphical performance would be marvelous,” he beams.But he may have to wait. IBM has yet to reveal pricing for the new blade, forthcoming in the third quarter of this year.

Like the Cell blade, IBM has upgraded other products. These include a low-power version of the Intel Xeon processor-based HS20 blade. Doug Balog, vice president of IBM’s BladeCenter division, told Byte and Switch that the new HS20, using Intel’s new Sossman processor, will consume just 180 watts of power, compared to 300 watts by its predecessor.

IBM has overhauled the HS20’s pricing. The new version, available in April, will start at $1,750, whereas the previous blade cost around $2,000.

Burns, who used HS20s in his last job, likes the sound of this. “When I worked at my old company, the power bill was $17,000 a month -- the low power version HS20 could have cut that in half."

IBM also introduced the JS21, the next generation of its Power PC processor-based JS20 blade. Unlike the dual-core JS20, the JS21 comes with up to four cores, which could make applications run three times faster. But this will come at a cost: The four-core blade, available next month, is priced at $4,000, compared to $2,260 for the JS20.Other vendors were quick to jump on the blade bandwagon, with Emulex unveiling a 4-Gbit/s SAN connector for IBM's new products, and ServerEngines and Voltaire getting in on the act. (See Emulex HBA Selected by IBM, ServerEngines Unveils Blade Gear, and Blade.org Adds Voltaire .)

Today’s slew of announcements reflect IBM’s desire to steal market share from its blade rivals HP and Sun, although the firms are taking different approaches to blade technology.

HP and Sun have opted to follow standards, including the ATCA telecom standard -- with HP launching its first ATCA-compliant blade yesterday. (See HP Helps Telecom Industry, Sun Beams on ATCA, and Server Honchos Flash Blades.) IBM, however, is attempting to develop its own telecom standard. (See IBM, Intel Open BladeCenter Specs.) Balog claims that this situation is unlikely to change, although he admitted that IBM may support the MicroTCA standard for I/O connectivity.

Meanwhile, users are sending mixed messages about blade technology in general. Some are wowed by the space savings blades offer, but cost issues have forced others to rip out their blade servers. (See NewEnergy Chops Its Blades, Are Blades Cutting It?, Study Highlights Blade Disappointment, and Blades for Buffalo .)

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and SwitchOrganizations mentioned in this article:

  • Emulex Corp. (NYSE: ELX)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)

  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)

  • ServerEngines LLC

  • Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE)

  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW)

  • Voltaire Inc.

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