IBM, Mercury team up on Cell-based blade server

IBM Corp. and Mercury Computer Systems Inc. plan to ship a blade server using the multicore Cell processor designed exclusively for IBM’s BladeCenter rack system, the companies announced Thursday.

Starting in the first quarter of 2006, Mercury’s customers will be able to purchase the Dual Cell-Based Blade, said Craig Lund, Mercury’s chief technology officer. The two-chip blade server will be the first product available using the Cell processor, and it is designed as a development platform for Mercury’s customers that are interested in using the chip for industrial and medical applications, he said.

Cell was the result of a three-way collaboration between IBM, Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. It has nine separate processor cores, including one PowerPC core and eight smaller processing units called SPEs (synergistic processing elements). Sony’s Playstation 3 will be the first mass-market product to use the processor starting next year, but Mercury and IBM will bring it out first in their upcoming blade server, Lund said.

Detailed specifications will be shared with early customers under a nondisclosure agreement, Mercury said in a press release. The systems will use Rambus Inc.’s XDR (extreme data rate) memory and come with two Cell processors, it said. Presentations at the Hot Chips show in August indicated that Cell will probably debut at a clock speed of 3.2GHz

The unique combination of Cell’s multiple cores requires software that must be tweaked to fully exploit Cell’s capabilities. As a result, Mercury and IBM believe that many initial customers will purchase a single Dual Cell-Based Blade server to use as a development workstation, Lund said.

Mercury builds motherboards designed for applications that need more performance or capabilities than are available from standard servers by companies such as IBM or Dell Inc. In many cases, those boards are combined into multiprocessor systems that resemble the Cell processor on a much larger scale. This means that applications for Mercury’s existing products had to be written with multiple processing units in mind, Lund said.

As a result, Mercury and its customers have already developed several software applications and tools that Mercury believes will help its customers get started developing applications for Cell, Lund said. It is also working with several independent software vendors to get third-party applications ready for the Cell servers, but most applications used in the medical, industrial and military markets targeted by Mercury are developed internally, he said.

The server will run a version of Linux tweaked by IBM’s programmers for Cell’s multiple processing engines, said Satish Gupta, general manager of IBM engineering and technology services. IBM is in talks with a few well-known Linux distribution companies in hopes of putting together a distribution deal for this Cell-ready version of Linux, but the company is not disclosing the progress or nature of those talks, he said.

Mercury will provide basic operating system support for customers of the Dual Cell-Based Blade, said Joel Radford, vice president of marketing and alliances for Mercury.

The blade server will fit into any blade chassis designed using IBM’s BladeCenter standard, Gupta said. BladeCenter is a specification developed by IBM and Intel Corp. for building racks of servers, storage, and networking devices designed to fit into slim “blade” formats. Any customer that purchases the Mercury Dual Cell-Based Blade has to use that product in a BladeCenter chassis.

IBM and Mercury are working on several future versions of Cell-based blade servers that will start to emerge next year, Lund said. Initial versions of the Dual Cell-Based Blade will become available in the first quarter of next year, with widespread availability of the product expected by the second quarter, he said. The companies did not disclose the pricing for the systems.

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