Volume 17, Number 19 -- May 12, 2008

IBM Goes Stateless and Cooler with iDataPlex Servers

Published: May 12, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

The evolution from tower to rack to blade to future servers continues apace, and IBM is cooking up a new line of custom-built servers called the iDataPlex that it hopes will make it the king of the so-called Web 2.0 hill. While the details on the iDataPlex server line, which will begin shipping in June, are sketchy, IBM is talking generally about the product and throwing around some pictures to get people interested in what is coming down the pike.

The iDataPlex offering is being billed as a complete hardware, software, and services stack that is more energy efficient than current rack or blade servers and that is designed expressly for the type of stateless computing typified by Web applications. IBM is also hoping to peddle iDataPlex setups to various high-performance computing (what we used to call supercomputer) customers and to also use the devices in its own Blue Cloud utility computing efforts, which include the open source Hadoop parallel computing environment created by and open source from Google, the Linux operating system, the Xen hypervisor, and various Tivoli systems management tools. But IBM wants to bring a competitive technical edge to bear as well, and has created a system that rips out many of the redundant (and power consuming) technologies in the typical data center out of the iDataPlex, since applications are spread across machines and run in a stateless mode anyway. To put it in plain English, if the application is coded to run across thousands of servers and finish a transaction even if a server crashes, why give a server redundant power supplies and fans?

Why is IBM focusing on the next generation of newbie Internet companies with the iDataPlex offerings? Because relatively small companies buy proportionally larger amounts of computing capacity in the Internet world than do "normal" companies in the retail, distribution, or manufacturing industries that sell or make real physical things, not make money on the cleverness with which they arrange patterns on a computer screen. IBM is also learning from history. With these Web 2.0 companies soaking up billions of dollars per quarter in venture capital and private equity, they have money to burn and large computing needs. Sun Microsystems and Compaq were in the right place with the right rack-based server products when the boom got under way, and their growth exploded--to the detriment of IBM's sales. And with the blade boom, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard were years ahead of IBM, and except for a brief 18 month interlude when HP stumbled a bit and IBM was able to eat some market share with its BladeCenter machines, the merged Compaq-HP has dominated the blade server market, too.

So that is why IBM is not content to just sell rack and blade variants of its Modular Systems X64 and Power products to these customers.

Here's what an iDataPlex server node looks like:

And here is what the rack looks like for a collection of 84 1U server nodes:

IBM is claiming that compared to regular rack-mounted servers, the iDataPlex iron will use 40 percent less iron and provide five times the compute density of those rack servers. IBM appears to be comparing dual-core processors in the racks with quad-core chips in the iDataPlex to arrive at these numbers. Also, the iDataPlex rack is based on two columns of 15-inch servers, as opposed to the 19-inch standard rack equipment. The change in form factor and rack style is accounting for a lot of this improvement, too. The iDataPlex is also supposed to be cooled by the Cool Blue water jackets that IBM puts on the back of racks and hooks right into water-cooled CRAC units inside the data center, and in this case, if customers do that, they won't have to chill the data center quite so much since the heat will be pulled right out of the back of the machinery and pumped out using liquid, not air. (Liquid is a much more efficient means of moving heat into or out of a system than air is.) Even without the water jackets, the iDataPlex setup is 20 percent cooler than a comparable rack of servers.

According to Bob Leonard, worldwide manager of Web 2.0 technical sales at IBM, the company is not selling the iDataPlex gear through any of its normal Systems and Technology Group channels, and the machinery will only be sold on a bid basis to selected companies. The idea is to target the same kind of energy-crunched companies that Rackable Systems and Verari Systems are peddling their energy-efficient rack and blade servers to. There are 22 different iDataPlex configurations in the IBM catalog, but there are no list prices for the gear since it is only available directly from Big Blue. The initial iDataPlex blades are based on Intel "Harpertown" quad-core Xeon processors, but there is no reason why IBM cannot create blades using Opteron chips or its own Power6 processors, for that matter. The iDataPlex solution can obviously run Windows or Solaris in addition to the initially supported Linux thanks to the X64 processors, and could run AIX, Linux, or even i5/OS on Power chips, too.

The iDataPlex gear will start shipping to customers in the United States and Canada in June and will roll out globally through the remainder of 2008. Yahoo and Texas Tech University are early customers for the machinery, and IBM is plunking down a bunch of these in its Blue Cloud utility computing centers, too.


The Blue Cloud Is IBM's Commercial Cloud Computing

Google, IBM Partner on Utility Computing Cloud

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
Mary Lou Roberts, Victor Rozek, Kevin Vandever, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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