IBMs vision for the future of computing will come into sharper focus early next year when the company finishes construction of the first working prototype of a new storage system thats modular, fully redundant and easy to scale.
The project, the Collective Intelligent Brick system, is a technologically sophisticated attempt to make the process of scaling capacity and then maintaining the system virtually effortless. But the systems unique design, if proven to work, could have a long-reaching impact at IBM and give corporate IT shops a new way to deploy and maintain computing systems.
The CIB, formerly code-named IceCube, comprises a series of stand-alone storage servers, each of which is housed in compact, cube-shaped chassis. The cubes, or bricks as IBM calls them, can be stacked atop one another or attached side by side to form a large Rubiks Cube-like storage system (see image).
Each brick of the planned prototype will contain 12 disks and up to 80GB of storage. When finished, the prototype will have three rows of nine bricks each stacked on top of one another, for a total storage capacity of about 26 terabytes, according to officials at the IBM Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., which is developing the project.
Key to scaling to that level of capacity is the CIB systems unique connectivity. Bricks connect to one another via capacitive coupling, a technology that uses a thin layer of electrical material on the face connecting plate instead of a cable, said Moidin Mohiuddin, senior manager of advanced storage systems at Almaden. Because of this, the bricks, which will be liquid-cooled, can be added quickly and easily.
The CIB was originally discussed by IBM early last year as a concept, with a working prototype slated to be built by the first quarter of 2003. IBM slipped on that date and is now shooting for the first quarter of 2004. Holding back production has been a series of "logistical and practical" hardware and software issues, officials said recently.
On the software front, both operating system challenges, like the development of a new switch protocol to handle new routing paths in a meshed environment, have combined with application level issues, like crafting effective authentication and security methods.
On the hardware end, things such as circuit board development tweaks have contributed to the deadline extension.
Also being worked out is how to connect the CIB to the network. IBM is considering a handful of designs. In one scenario, a racklike backplane would rise vertically from the center of the pile of bricks. In another, IBM would offer two types of bricks, regular and so-called "gateway ports," and no network board.
Though Mohiuddin said its too early to speculate on what other products the cube-based architecture could fit into, IBM literature dated January 2002 discusses CIB in terms of storage systems, computer servers and Web servers.
For now, however, the primary concern is building the storage prototype.
"Getting the prototype running is the first step," said Mohiuddin. The next step: "We have to convince the [IBM] product people" that the project is worth considering, he said.
"Most interesting to me is that it is at one level taking conventional technology and, by being creative, and thinking about a problem in a different way, deploying it in a way thats radically different," said Charles King, research director at The Sagaza Group, in Mountain View, Calif. "Its like taking a Volkswagen and running a limousine on it. Thats pretty neat."