First Foster server makes mainframe features mainstream

IBM's x360 is the first server to use the Xeon MP, but initial shipments will be stunted by a lack of availability of the processors
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

IBM's x360, first server based on Intel's multiprocessor-enabled Xeon chip, code-named Foster, will go on sale in the UK next week. The x360 has several firsts for Intel-based servers that bring mainframe-like features to the high-volume Intel server market.

The four-way rack server can be extended by plugging several together to create to a 16-way server. IBM says that in theory a system could be expanded to 32-way. To begin with, however, the number of processors will be severely limited by supply and IBM will only be supplying servers with two processors apiece.

In the UK, a single four-way server will cost £12,601 for dual 1.5GHz processors, and £16,005 for dual 1.6GHz processor, with 2GB of memory and two 36GB disk drives. Four-processor models will appear in the first quarter of next year.

In common with most of its server announcements, IBM stressed the cross-fertilisation between its mainframe, mid-range and Intel-based systems. In this case, the company stressed the provision of remote I/O, allowing the system to link to a separate expansion box containing up to 12 PCI cards. "In the long run, remote I/O will be the most significant part of this announcement," said Tikiri Wanduragala, senior server consultant for xSeries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "It is new in the Intel space."

Other mainframe-like technologies include Active Memory, which allows users to hot-swap defective memory units while the server is running; concurrent diagnostics, which runs continually in the background; and a "director" system management program, which manages multiple operating systems in different partitions. "While we talk about multiple operating systems, most users will be running multiple versions of one operating system, as a fall-back," said Wanduragala.

The system can be reconfigured as a cluster or an SMP multiprocessor system, and four 3.2GB per second links available on each box mean it can be configured in clusters of up to 32 processors. There is no need for special NUMA versions of any software, said Wanduragala.

The RXE-100 or "Rio" expansion box can be up to three metres from the main system and up to three can be daisy-chained. It is also works with IBM's Unix mid-range systems, the pSeries (formerly RS/6000) and the iSeries (formerly AS/400). Separate I/O subsystems have been a mainstay of mainframe and mid-range systems, allowing more modular systems to be built.

The Rio contains two "six-packs" of PCI card slots, and can be shared by multiple systems. In future, users can replace those six-packs with more advanced buses, such as PCI-X and Infiniband, as these become available, said Wanduragala. "When Infiniband comes on stream, even the zSeries (formerly 390 mainframe) will use it," said Wanduragala.

IBM's product release schedule has as much to do with Intel's product availability as IBM's strategy. Summit was reportedly originally intended to work with 64-bit Itanium processors, but a 32-bit version was brought forward in response to Itanium delays. Making a virtue of a necessity, Wanduragala said: "People are asking for flexible designs, to handle 32-bit and 64-bit processors."

The launch conference bordered on confusion at times, with every Intel processor and IBM server having two names -- the pre-launch project code name and the final product name. Wanduragala apologised for the dull-sounding x360 name, saying "Project code names are only temporary -- the good names have already been taken." It turns out that the Summit name has already been taken by a keg beer refrigerator, which resembles an IBM mid-range server, so it seems likely that Fosters may well already be installed in plenty of Summits out there.

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