Big Blue gives memory a hard look

In the world of computing you can never have too much money or too much memory. IBM can’t help you with the former but it will be releasing a new technology to try to help you with the latter.

Dubbed memory eXpansion technology, the product essentially doubles server memory capacity. Unlike previous memory expansion technologies, MXT is a hardware solution designed to bypass some of the inherent problems found in software options.

According to the company the technology automatically stores frequently-used data and instructions close to the computer’s CPU. Less frequently-accessed data is compressed and stored in memory, thus doubling its capacity.

“This is a piece of hardware that sits between the processor and the main memory and is part of the memory controller system,” said Ellen Yoffa, director of personal and scaleable systems at IBM Corp.’s Yorktown Heights N.Y., Watson Research Centre. “It effectively gives the processor the sensation that there is twice as much memory as there is physically installed in the machine,” she added.

The MXT hardware is incorporated into the memory controller, itself located within the core logic chip set. In order to create this solution, IBM added a third level of cache to store the uncompressed, frequently used information. The remaining physical memory stores compressed information, and acts as a back up to the third-level cache, according to the company.

IBM said the net result is memory compression that is 10,000 times faster than previous software solutions. This speed increase was made possible by using more refined algorithms to compress and uncompress data moving from the third-level cache to the physical memory.

market for MXT

“Our goal is that this technology be pervasive in the industry, used everywhere from servers down to pervasive devices,” Yoffa said. She added that the new technology will be first released in the Netfinity line of IBM servers and is currently limited to 8GB of physical memory.

Users agree the idea’s time has come and will help in many levels of computing.

“If this product is everything they say it is going to be, then I can see a real advantage and a real boon to computing technology world-wide…this is going to be a tremendous benefit to the Internet,” said Stephen Ibaraki, head of research and a senior faculty member at North Vancouver’s Capilano College.

“All of that sounds pretty good, the fact that it is hardware based means that there is full transparency, even the operating system wouldn’t really have to know about it,” he added.

Clinton Wasylishen, server support specialist with Telus Corp. in Edmonton, said the initial target of the server market is a good idea, since the cost of server RAM is enormous, especially for large Internet sites. “It makes a lot of sense in the volumes of RAM that servers deal with.”

Ibaraki pointed out that this concept of doubling the RAM through hardware has been around for some time. “I think the limitation has been that the hardware itself has been too expensive or not able to be completely transparent,” he said.

According to Yoffa, IBM plans on releasing the IBM server boxes, with the new technology, sometime in Q1 of 2001, though the exact date has not been set. Prices for the super-charged servers is also unavailable at this time. Santa Clara, Calif.-based ServerWorks, a producer of core logic for Intel-based servers, has a five year technology sharing agreement with IBM to incorporate the MXT technology in its products.

IBM in Markham, Ont., can be reached at 1-800-426-4968.