IBM System x Server Buyer's Guide

Friday May 7th 2010 by Drew Robb

IBM has taken to the road with the message that Intel's Nehalem EX processors coupled with Big Blue's system engineering talents has resulted in a platform well-suited for virtualization, consolidation and mission-critical applications. Does the server hardware live up to the praise?

IBM has really gotten behind the latest wave of Intel processors, as shown by both its recent server announcements and the fact that it is demonstrating these products at roadshows around the nation in a joint tour with Intel. The message: Intel's Nehalem EX processors coupled with IBM's system engineering talents provide a platform well-suited for virtualization, consolidation and mission-critical applications.

For those interested in buying new x86 servers or blades, IBM has put together a compelling proposition that will send the competition reeling. The company is basically saying it can sell customers two-socket systems that can do the same work or better than the four-socket servers of its rivals -- even if those four-socket machines are using the latest and fastest processors. Quite a claim, and IBM has put an exclamation point on it with benchmark scores to back it up, as well as providing ways to boost I/O and reduce power costs.

These IBM servers came out in two main waves.

eX5 Systems

IBM is beginning to unveil its new eX5 line, which encompasses servers, flash technology, a way to expand the memory footprint considerably and greater server flexibility. This is the product of a three-year engineering effort to improve the economics of large-scale, memory-intensive x86 workloads. The starting price for the first two products in the nascent eX5 line is $4,600.

The System x3850 X5 comes in four- and eight-processor configurations using the Intel Xeon 7500. This 4U box can hold four-, six- or eight-core Xeon 7500s. Some customers don't want eight cores, as they pay licensing fees to software vendors on a per-core basis. This server is now shipping.

The eX5s are already smoking the competition on industry benchmarks. The x3850 X5 scored the highest number of transactions-per-second ever achieved by a four-processor system on the TPC-E benchmark -- the top spot for four-socket and 32-core systems using Nehalem EX on VMware virtualization benchmarks.

The BladeCenter HX5 comes in 2- and 4-processor configurations. It also features the Xeon 7500 or the Xeon 6500. It has eight I/O ports (two sockets). IBM has engineered it to be able to hold up to a half TB of memory on one blade.

"Coming soon is the 2U x3690 X5, which will have five I/O slots in what will be a two-socket system using Nehalem EX," said Harsh Kachhy, worldwide IBM BladeCenter product manager.

The MAX Factor

IBM touts these systems as being able to reduce the number of servers needed by half and potentially cutting storage costs by 97 percent and licensing fees by 50 percent. How? By decoupling memory and I/O from the processor.

IBM has come up with what it calls MAX5. This is a way to expand the amount of memory available to processors. Normally, the processor architecture dictates just how many dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) you can have. IBM has developed a MAX5 external memory enclosure, which slides into the blade chassis or rack enclosure to provide more memory to the server. One drawer of 32 DIMMs takes up 1U of space and can replace one blade within IBM BladeCenter.

"MAX5 is a game changer, as memory has traditionally been the bottleneck," said Harsh Kachhy, worldwide IBM BladeCenter product manager. "It enables the scaling up of memory independent of the CPU."

Some examples: The two-socket x3690 X5 supports 64DIMMs with MAX5 compared to 32 DIMMs for a comparable two-socket rack server. In the four-socket bracket, Xeon 7500-based servers can handle up to 64 DIMMs, the x3850 EX can support 96, and the x3690 X5 can support 128. This directly adds up to being able to run as many as 82 percent more virtual machines on these systems for the same licensing fees, and perhaps the more important aspect -- scale down from a four-socket to a two-socket system due to having enough memory available for a demanding applications like a database. Not only do you save by purchasing a smaller server, but you also typically pay license fees according to the number of processors. This allows you to save considerably on the software side, too.

Another feature of eX5 is eXFlash. Essentially, this is the replacement of some system hard drives with solid state drives (SSDs) to boost I/O. According to IBM, one module of eXFlash provides the same I/O as 800 disks and consumes about 1 percent of the power. You can fit two eXFlash modules into an x3850 server, for example, and generate 480k IOPS -- a 40X increase compared to the IOPS from internal hard drives in the same system. The eX3950 can hold three modules, providing 720k IOPS. According to Kachhy, each module can hold up to 1.6 TB.

One final element of eX5 bears mention: FlexNode. This allows IT to virtually carve a four-socket machine into two sockets and back again, depending on varying workloads. If you need only two sockets most of the time, you can use the other two sockets for something else, and then draft them back into the system during peak demand without the need to touch the hardware.

M3 Systems

A few weeks before the release of the eX5 servers above, IBM announced more two-socket x86 servers. These provide 50 percent more cores and a performance hike of about 50 percent compared to the previous generation. For those looking to buy, IBM lists consolidation ratios of 20-to-1 compared to models from three or four years ago.

This new line of System x products includes the x3650 M3 and x3550 M3 rack servers, the x3500 M3 and x3400 M3 towers, the BladeCenter HS22, and the virtualization-optimized BladeCenter HS22V.

In addition, IBM released the two-socket dx360 M3 iDataPlex server. Aimed at power-intensive computing, this form factor lets blades and racks play together.

In all cases, IBM boasts about its virtualization credentials as well as lower power and more processing capability. The HS22V, for instance, is said to enable 30 percent to 50 percent more virtual machines on a single blade, has memory that consumes 15 percent less power, and runs Java applications up to 43 percent faster than IBM's prior-generation, two-socket blades. All of these servers use the Xeon 5600 processor.

Bottom Line

IBM is in the midst of a complete refresh of all of it servers. While some non-Xeon 5600/6500/7500 models continue to exist (see the table that follows for a complete list), it seems likely that all of these will be replaced in the coming months. IBM, of course, also uses the latest AMD Opteron processors, but for some reason it isn't making so much of a fuss about those.

While other vendors are content to add the new processor, IBM may have gained an advantage by engineering in more memory, SSDs and flexibility. For a limited time, at least, that may even give Big Blue a position that it hasn't enjoyed in the x86 marketplace --holding a price advantage.

IBM System x Server Line Up

Name Rackmount Tower Blade
Description x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers x86 processor-based servers
Target Deployment Scale up and scale out x86 servers Scale up and scale out x86 servers Scale up and scale out x86 servers
Processor Type Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron
Operating Systems Windows, Linux, VMWare, Solaris Windows, Linux, VMWare, Solaris Windows, Linux, VMWare, Solaris
Servers x3250 M3
x3250 M2
x3250 M2
x3550 M3
x3550 M2
x3650 M3
x3650 M2
x3650 T
x3850 X5
x3950 M2
x3850 M2
x3200 M3
x3200 M2
x3400 M3
x3400 M2
x3500 M3
x3500 M2
BladeCenter HX5
BladeCenter HS22V
BladeCenter HS22
BladeCenter HS12
BladeCenter LS42
BladeCenter LS22
BladeCenter PN41

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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