Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NeXtScale: it’s what’s happening with IBM System x!

By Rich Ptak

A little over a month ago, we asked ‘What’s happening with IBM System x?’ in response to rumors that IBM was considering ‘disinvesting’ and leaving the x86-based systems market. We examined the issue from a business, product and market perspective and reached the conclusion that “We don’t see any compelling evidence that IBM will or should abandon the x86.”  Today’s announcements concerning improvements, extensions and new products and services for the System x supports our earlier conclusion, as it documents their plans to greatly increase their investment and visibility in the market of highly flexible, general-purpose System x servers from the singles to massive enterprise server farms.

IBM NeXtScale System™ represents an explosive expansion and movement by IBM into the High Performance (HPC) and High Density computing market segments. It extends their current mix of offerings which include the x3100, x3250, x3530, x3550, x3630, x3650, x3690, x3750, x3850,  iDataPlex, etc. to extreme large scale systems.

IBM NeXtScale System steps up the game significantly as a key representative of x86 based NeXtGen systems. It presents a new architecture for IBM System x. The guiding design principles were flexibility simplicity and scalability. This system directly targets the general-purpose server market providing an attractively priced, high quality alternative to the offerings from HP and DELL.

System statistics and specifications will impress IT developer and operations staffs.  A joint venture between the US Research Triangle and a Taiwan-based IBM design/development team put together the system and roadmap that excels today and will grow smoothly into the future. Its components were designed to scale from components to single or double chassis unit to full out single or multiple rack applications.

Developers will like the simple, light chassis that is designed for ‘front-of-rack’ servicing, tool-less access to servers and server removal without touching its power. The compute, storage and PCI-GPU/GPGPU components are designed to swap easily, mix and match in standard configurations. All are compatible with standard racks. Storage and Graphics Acceleration or Co-Processing expansion units make upgrading easy without any unique mid-plane dependencies.

Operations staff will like the front-access to all components, including cable routing (if desired). All Power and LEDs are forward facing. Networking cables and Switches are front facing and direct to system with no proprietary switching. All switching is done at the top of the rack. Support is available for 1/10/40 Gb, InfiniBand, FCoE and VFAs. The system can be shipped fully configured and ready to power on. All hardware, software and management are designed to assure maximum power efficiency. We could go on but you get the idea. See here[1] for more details.

IBM identifies 8 key points of differentiation from competitor offerings; here are four that especially impressed us:

  1. No left/right servers needed (competitors require different servers for left and right sides of the chassis making replacement cumbersome)
  2. Simple, tool free installation of parts speeds installation and on- boarding (most other dense platforms require tools to install PCI cards and HDDs)
  3. Operation at 40°C (104°F) inlet air temperature can save money in the data center (most competition stops at 35°C (95°F))
  4. NeXtScale supports full TOP BIN Intel E5 2600 v2 130W processors (many other dense designs only support up to 115W)

IBM positioned the NeXtScale systems as complementary to both the existing iDataPlex and IBM Flex system offerings. Finally, IBM stated that they are will continue to sell the iDataPlex through 2015. Gen 1 NeXtScale systems are not right for everyone today. It lacks several features that iDataPlex has today including water cooling and 16 DIMM slots. Also, GPU/GPGPU support is available only on iDataPlex. (NeXtScale has plans to add support in Q1 2014.)

All in all, IBM effectively demonstrated that its commitment to and plans for the System x family extends well into the future. They are aggressively pursuing new market opportunities against established competitors with these systems, while they make enhancements to all parts of the System x family. To paraphrase Mark Twain, one of our favorite authors, “reports of the death of the IBM System x family have been greatly exaggerated.”

Publication Date: September 11, 2013