IBM bolsters blade series with Cell upgrade

IBM Corp. announced an upgraded version of its blade server based on the Cell processor on Wednesday, adding memory and data throughput for better performance on high-end applications such as graphics and finance.

IBM also shaved the size of the server, so users can fit 14 of the new IBM BladeCenter QS21s into each chassis, compared to seven units of its predecessor, the QS20. The new version can also function in a diverse blade environment, working alongside computers based on the x86 or PowerPC chip architecture to assign workloads to the most efficient platform, said Paula Richards, product line manager for Cell systems at IBM.

“We’re seeing many applications where users want to actually marry a quad-core Intel or AMD blade with a Cell blade, so they can use the standard blade for basic workloads, then push their mission-critical, exotic applications off to the Cell platform,” Richards said.

IBM will begin selling the QS21 in October to users in industries that need to run visual computing tasks such as 3D rendering and time-critical jobs like compression and encryption. The system relies on the Cell Broadband Engine processor, created for Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.’s PlayStation 3 gaming system by the consortium of IBM, Sony and Toshiba Corp.

The QS21 features two 3.2 GHz Cell processors, dual Gigabit Ethernet networking and Red Hat Inc.’s Enterprise Linux 5.1 OS. At its maximum density in high-performance computing clusters, the system can run as fast as 6.4 tera floating point operations per second (TFLOPS) in a BladeCenter H chassis, or 25.8 TFLOPS in a 42U rack.

“We’re not trying to be a general purpose platform here. If you want to run your monthly statements or ERP, that’s not what this is about,” said Richards. “This is for time-critical, highly intense workloads like financial applications, digital video surveillance, medical imaging or even digital media and entertainment. Jobs where time is money.”

The product will supplement IBM’s lineup of blade servers, which also includes products running on IBM’s PowerPC chips, Intel Corp.’s Xeon or Core 2 Duo chips, and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Opteron processor.

By upgrading the performance of the Cell version of the BladeCenter, IBM will be able to reach more corners of the highly specialized field of high-performance computing, one analyst said.

Users buy the Xeon and Opteron BladeCenters for general purpose computing, the PowerPC BladeCenter for jobs in a Unix environment and the Cell BladeCenter for compute-intensive applications like signal processing and image analysis, including designs from Mercury Computer Systems Inc., a military and aerospace industry contractor, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64.

“They all do different things, so this is a technology update instead of a big change in positioning,” Brookwood said.

In concert with the QS21, IBM announced version 3.0 of its SDK (software development kit) for Multicore Acceleration, designed to streamline the process of application development for the new platform. IBM will launch the SDK for Multicore Acceleration on October 19, and launch the QS21 on October 26.

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