IBM splits memory and processor on eX5 servers

IBM Corp. introduced a new line of eX5 servers for the x86 platform at CeBIT in Hannover, Germany, which offer big benefits for virtualization projects by removing the need to buy more servers through scalable memory.

Memory is the bottleneck in the architecture today, according to Roland Hagan, vice-president of IBM System x. “In this new generation of eX5, we are going to remove that memory constraint and allow clients to scale memory independently of having to buy more servers,” he said.

As clients continue to consolidate more workloads into x86 servers and virtualization has started to take off, the real constraint in driving a larger number of virtual machines for virtualization is memory, said Hagan. 

The independent memory scaling technology, called MAX 5, will offer six times more memory than what is currently available. According to IBM, the maximum amount of memory for current generation IBM system is 256GB, while eX5 with MAX5 attached will offer 1.5TB.

“We will have in this class of machines substantial memory scalability advantages over what the other competitors will offer,” said Hagan. He expects the machines will offer “as much as two times what will be available in the industry by our competitors in the new generation.”

With the separate memory module, blade systems will be able to scale an additional 24 dual inline memory modules, while rack systems will be able to add as many as 32 DIMMs, he said.

Cost savings resulting from scalable memory include acquisition, but more important are the savings in energy costs that result from not needing to add another machine or manage another end point, according to Hagan.

Another significant financial benefit lies in licensing costs, he said. For example, by replacing a workload on a current four-socket machine with one of the new two-socket machines, licensing costs can be cut in half, he said.

IBM’s memory expandability is built on industry standard architecture, Hagan said. Clients like to think of the x86 servers as being “a bit fungible and less expensive” so we are not building something that is proprietary in the architecture, he said.

“To that point, every single operating system, every single application that somebody would run today will run seamlessly in the new architecture. There is no software migration required,” he said.

The eX5 portfolio also features solid state industry standard flash memory called exFlash and FlexNode, which offers the ability to remotely provision a two-socket machine to a four-socket machine and back, he said.

Available later this month, the eX5 portfolio will include three systems: a four-processor IBM System x3850 X5 server, a two-processor System X3690 X5 server and the BladeCenter HX5 blade server.

IBM’s solution is “a real cost-saver for a lot of companies,” said Darin Stahl, lead analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. Extreme memory allows companies to dramatically increase the number of virtual servers for the same licence costs, he said.

But the response from hardware vendors to design purpose-built platforms and architecture that support virtualization is not breakthrough, Stahl said. Hewlett-Packard Co. announced a version of its products very similar to IBM’s last June, he said.

“You could certainly make the case that (this) is a response to what HP did with their Extreme Scale-out architecture,” said Stahl, who expects similar announcements from other OEMs like Dell Inc. down the road.

Purpose-built infrastructure will be a “much more welcome play for mid-sized enterprises” than blades have been, according to Stahl.

Some would argue that the blade architecture is already purpose-built and useful for virtualization, but the majority of Info-Tech clients “who are really deep in virtualization” have not adopted the blade architecture, he said.

Blade architecture “locks you into sort of a commodity architecture that could be very expensive, so the adoption rate on blades has been very low, whereas this form factor that is purpose-built tends to bring lower (capital expenditure),” he said.

“Virtualization has been the engine behind data centre transformation over the last few years,” said Tarun Bhasin, server market analyst at IDC Canada, in an e-mail interview.

“These new products from IBM will help continue and even accelerate the trend towards greater virtual machine density per box … Moreover, it paves the way for more (virtualization) use cases such as server-hosted desktops,” said Bhasin.

The plus for IT departments is they “can do more with less,” said Bhasin. “But the downside is having to manage VM sprawl.” 

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur 

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