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Volume 4, Number 37 -- October 11, 2007

IBM Tweaks BladeCenter S for the Office, Preps Power6 Blades

Published: October 11, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Back in June, IBM previewed a blade server chassis aimed at moving blades from the data centers of the world's largest organizations, who have been trying to cram as much computing power as they can in as small a space as possible, to small and medium businesses, who want integrated systems that fit in a closet, in a corner, or under a desk. The BladeCenter S was IBM's initial foray, and now that Hewlett-Packard has announced its "Shorty" BladeSystem c3000 chassis, IBM has rejiggered the BladeCenter S chassis to better compete in the SMB space.

The BladeCenter S chassis that IBM previewed in June for delivery in the fourth quarter of this year is based on a repurposed first-generation BladeCenter chassis. This box has a 7U rack-mounted form factor and has room for 14 single-width, vertical blade servers in the front and room for various kinds of power supplies and switching gear in the back. With the second-generation BladeCenter H chassis, IBM added 1U of space top and bottom to the chassis to allow room for cooling and other electronics, but still put a maximum of 14 single-width blades in the 9U chassis. These chasses are both 28 inches deep, but IBM does have special BladeCenter T chasses that are 20-inches deep and that run on DC power. The BladeCenter S is not based on this shallow chassis (maybe it should have been), but rather the full-depth box. Unlike prior blade chasses, the BladeCenter S runs on 110/120 volt power instead of 220/240 volt power, which means it can plug into a normal electrical outlet in most office (and home) environments.

The number of blades you can put in the BladeCenter S box is limited by the power draw, and when you cut the volts in half, you cut the watts in half, so the BladeCenter S has no choice but to cut the number of blades roughly in half. The 7U box supports up to six two-socket blades or up to three four-socket blades. All of the blades that IBM currently sells--the HS21 Xeon, LS21 and LS41 Opteron, JS21 PowerPC 970MP, and QS21 Cell blades--can plug into this box. Up to two additional disk storage modules, which have six 3.5-inch SAS or SATA disk in them, can plug into the unit and link to the blade servers as well. The unit has four hot swap power bays, four fans, a management service processor, and room for three Gigabit Ethernet switches. The unit has a CD/DVD drive that is shared by all of the blades.

According to David Tareen, product manager for the BladeCenter S product at IBM, the new box will begin shipping in limited quantities in November, with volume shipments in December. But SMB customers will probably want to spend a little extra money to get what IBM is calling the Office Ready Kit for the BladeCenter S chassis. Because IBM intends for these machines to be installed in an office environment, and knows that people will probably cram them under their desks as a prominent retailing giant does currently with its in-store blade servers, the kit includes a dust filter and kick guard for the front of the machine. And because noise is an issue because of the fans, the kit will also include an acoustics filter on the back, which can radically cut down on the noise.

The BladeCenter S at the start of a promising recording career? No, just being tested in an acoustics lab.

The kit also provides a black shell for the BladeCenter S chassis, complete with wheels so you can roll it around the office. The Office Ready Kit will not be ready, however, until February 2008--IBM is still working some of the kinks out in the acoustics filter.

A zoom of the picture shows the Office Ready Kit installed, which makes the unit even deeper than a plain blade server chassis. You'd better have a deep desk if you want to use this puppy deskside.

Expect IBM to make a big deal about the acoustics filter, which drops the noise in a loaded unit to 60 decibels, which IBM says is equivalent to a quiet conversation. (Remember that decibels are on a log scale, so any change in number is a lot more or less energy as you move up and down the scale.) By comparison, a whisper in the library is around 40 decibels, road traffic about 100 feet from the road is about 70 decibels, a jet screaming overhead at about 1,000 feet is 90 decibels, and loud club with lots of drunk dancers is about 100 decibels. A normal business office is about 50 decibels. In tests, IBM says that HP's Shorty runs at 70 decibels, which is twice as loud. Then again, HP could put its own acoustic filter on the Shorty chassis to make it quieter, and it probably will, in fact.

The other thing that the Office Ready Kit will have is an extra 4U of space in the black case to add other peripherals, such as a tape backup unit and a 1U slideaway KVM unit. So the overall size of a real office configuration is going to be 11U, not 7U, which works out to 19.25 inches high by just under 20 inches wide. The Shorty chassis from HP is 6U high, but it will undoubtedly be flipped on its side in most SMB shops, meaning it will be just under 20 inches high and 10.5 inches wide. The HP box will be skinnier, and it will support four full height blades and eight half height blades. With a tape unit installed, the blade count drops, since it eats the same space, unlike in the BladeCenter S.

At $3,298 for the BladeCenter S chassis, IBM seems content to compete a little on price. HP is charging $4,299 for the c3000 chassis, which is only a little less than the $5,399 it charges for the larger c7000 chassis. IBM has not released pricing for the Office Ready Kit yet, but Tareen says that IBM wants to keep it under $1,000 and that the target price is between $600 and $800. The kit can be preconfigured as part of a BladeCenter S offering that includes blades, storage, and switches, and the machine will also be available through IBM's Express pre-configuration offerings, which give resellers discounts if they buy a bunch of bundled machines that are ready to be installed--discounts that they pass on to customers. Tareen says that a typical SMB shop will spend around $20,000 for a complete BladeCenter S solution, which is in effect the entire data center for the organization.

IBM is also expecting to use the BladeCenter S as a means of chasing larger midrange shops that have 25 to 45 servers, on average, and who are ripe for a server consolidation project but who do not need the full-blown BladeCenter H chassis.

The one thing IBM is not ready to talk about is the forthcoming JS12 and JS22 blade servers. But the word on the street is that the Power6-based blade server launch is imminent. The JS22 is definitely a Power6 blade, but the exact speeds and feeds are unknown. It is likely that the JS22 is a single-socket, dual-core blade server that supports AIX 5.3, i5/OS V5R4M5, and Linux 2.6 from Red Hat and Novell and that the JS12 is a single-core variant with less memory expansion and a cheaper price. Depending on the thermals, IBM probably has to use low-voltage, low-speed variants of the Power6 chip, which has an estimated 100 watt thermal design point running at its current top speed of 4.7 GHz. IBM also ships 3.5 GHz and 4.2 GHz versions of the chip, and it would not be at all surprising to see IBM lower the speed down to 3 GHz to get thermals that are more in line with dual-core X64 chips.

IBM has not said precisely when the Power6-based blade servers will ship, but the announcement is expected before the end of the fourth quarter. The odds favor the launch sometime around the delivery of the BladeCenter S chassis, which should also be when IBM gets other Power6-based rack-mounted and tower machines to market.


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