IBM Preps Next-Generation EXA Chipset

Forthcoming versions of IBM's Enterprise X Architecture chipsets will add virtualization and enhanced I/O capabilities, officials said.

IBM engineers are looking to add high-end virtualization, greater scalability and enhanced I/O capabilities into the next generation of the companys chipsets that run in many servers powered by Intel Corp.s Xeon chips.

IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., is planning to roll out servers featuring the third generation of its EXA (Enterprise X Architecture) chipsets in early 2005, after Intels release of the Xeon MP processor, code-named Potomac, set for later this year.

IBM introduced the EXA chipsets—code named Summit—in 2000 as a way of bringing management and high-availability features found in its mainframe systems into its line of Intel-based xSeries servers, then called the Netfinity line. In the first two generations of EXA, those features included high-scalability and performance capabilities, as well as the means to work around failed memory and diagnose problems without having to bring the system down. This capability helped with planned outages for maintenance reasons.

The chipsets are used in IBMs "scale-up" systems—from the four-way Xeon-based x360 to the 32-way x445—as opposed to "scale-out" systems such as blade servers, according to Tom Bradicich, chief technology office for the xSeries platform.

Currently, the chipsets can scale up to systems running 32 processors, in increments of four processors at a time. If a user is running a four-way server but needs to add processors, they can bring in another four-way server to create an eight-way system. If demand declines, the number of processors used can be reduced, breaking the eight-way systems into two four-processor servers.

"You can expand and contract," he said. "The flexibility there is extremely appealing."

Bradicich said IBM is looking to increase the scalability of the third-generation chipset to at least 64 processors, though it might go higher if customer demand requires it. It also depends on what fits best within the companys other offerings, including its systems running 64-bit Itanium chips from Intel and Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc., as well as servers powered by IBMs own POWER processors, he said.

"A 128-way may fit better with [IBM] servers with Power or Itanium," Bradicich said, adding that those decisions have yet to be made.

A key addition to EXA will be greater virtualization capabilities, something already offered in IBMs POWER-based RISC servers and mainframe zSeries systems, but not as prevalent in Intel-based servers.

"That technology is just coming to the Intel platform," Bradicich said. "Its just natural to take that and integrate it into EXA 3."

The technology will enable IT administrators to take the various data center computing components—from traditional and virtual servers to networking and storage devices—and manage them as a single pool of resources, feeding into IBMs on-demand computing initiative designed to make IT infrastructures more flexible and responsive to business demands.

"Our vision … is to bring [resource management] into a single view and that is a beneficial principle because of the server-network convergence and the server-storage convergence," he said.

Bradicich said EXA 3 also will take greater advantage of upcoming 10Gbps interconnect capabilities, such as InfiniBand, and Remote Direct Memory Access, or RDMA over Ethernet, as well as the latest iSCSI technology.

EXA 3 will be designed to run high-end applications such as database, business intelligence and customer relationship management software, he said. The scalability features also should be attractive to research institutions and technical computing businesses. But the key for such highly scalable systems is linking management features, such as virtualization, as well, Bradicich said.

"The market does shrink as you go up [in the number of processors]," he said. "These very large groups of processors are most attractive when the management capabilities are brought in."