Based on readily available components but sporting an efficient new rack form factor, the x86-based scalable server running Linux will also save companies thousands on energy bills.
As I see the direction that computing today is taking, it's becoming increasingly clear why IBM decoupled the i5/OS operating system from the hardware that we traditionally knew as the System i or iSeries. The move has been a wrenching one for people used to thinking of a computer as a self-contained hardware, software, and services stack.
The release next month of a new type of server called the System x iDataPlex, however, may foreshadow where computing appears to be going over the next decade. For the past 40 years, companies have been adding on to their data centers with both physical and technology build-outs at will. Fairly recently, all that has come to a grinding halt for many organizations. Companies today are constrained in their need to expand their technology infrastructures because of the cost of electricity, the large amount of power that today's processor-intensive computers require, and the lack of physical space that many of them have to handle the expansions that they require.
More than 80 percent of today's data centers were built prior to 2001, and most are rapidly growing long-of-tooth. The cost of supplying electrical energy to power, cool, and manage these aging data centers presents a serious challenge to today's businesses. At the same time, many regional power grids are having trouble keeping up with demand. Consequently, companies can't embrace the new business processes that they need to stay competitive or take advantage of new markets because they don't have the computing density. To compound the problem, a new wave of server-intensive Web 2.0 technologies will require even more computing power and energy.
The new IBM System x iDataPlex server represents a fresh new approach to addressing these issues. The server leverages a variety of existing rack and BladeCenter technologies in a new form factor that more than doubles the number of systems that can run in a single IBM rack, uses 40 percent less power, and increases computing power by as much as five times, depending on which processors you're currently using.
Designed to address tomorrow's Web 2.0 business applications such as broadcast and entertainment (including online gaming and virtual-world environments), commerce-enabling Web sites and services (such as Amazon and eBay), hosted applications, and collaboration solutions (like blogs, wikis and mashups), the new server is designed to lower costs and increase power and scalability. It's also an ideal candidate for high-performance computing (HPC) applications, such as life sciences, engineering, geological studies, financial services, and research at government and academic institutions. Yahoo and Texas Tech University are early adopters, as is IBM, which plans to use it to support its Blue Cloud initiative.
The server relies on leveraging hundreds to tens of thousands of commodity x86-based server nodes in a clustered architecture where the objective is not hardware resiliency but software resiliency. It currently supports Linux, the operating system of choice for most Web 2.0 solutions and selected in part to help keep costs down. With the Intel quad-core Xeon processors, it could also run Windows and Solaris. Though IBM isn't speculating, others have pointed out that the server could just as easily be outfitted with Power6 chips at some point to run applications under IBM i, AIX, and Linux for Power.
It's far more energy efficient than current rack or blade servers, partly because it is stripped of redundant hardware, such as backup power supplies and cooling fans, and partly because it can be outfitted with a liquid-cooled blanket on the back, eliminating the need for air conditioning altogether in most environments. According to IBM, the iDataPlex design can save owners of a typical Internet-scale data center up to $1.2 million annually in cooling costs.
It employs two columns of 15-inch servers versus the standard 19-inch rack equipment currently in use. The handy front-access rack has the same footprint as standard enterprise racks, allowing businesses to either add the iDataPlex to existing infrastructure or swap it out without redesigning the computer room.
IBM sees venture capital going into developing young Web 2.0 technology companies and realizes that they are highly dependent upon, and good customers for, high-performance computing technology.
"Enterprise Web 2.0 and the emerging cloud computing sectors are among the top high growth investment areas for Hummer Winblad," said Ann Winblad, co-founder and managing director of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, an investor in Web 2.0 and cloud startups.
"With iDataPlex, IBM is making Web 2.0-style computing more efficient and commercializing it for Internet companies and other high-performance segments like financial services and research," said Bill Zeitler, senior vice president of IBM Systems and Technology Group. (Zeitler, 60, recently announced that he will retire August 1 after 39 years with IBM. His replacement will be Robert Moffat, who currently is in charge of IBM's supply chain).
Winblad suggested that the iDataPlex will actually help fuel the growth of the Web 2.0 and emerging cloud computing sectors by eliminating some of the factors inhibiting their growth, namely the space and energy required to serve content to a large number of users. Numerous industry studies indicate that HPC server revenues will continue to grow much faster than revenues from the overall server line. Clusters will be the dominant platform, utilizing nearly 70 percent of HPC servers.
In line with IBM's objective to simplify, and thereby reduce the cost of, technology, the iDataPlex server will be made to order and arrive at the user's data center completely integrated, tested, and ready to deploy right from the factory. Already the company has orders or serious interest from Web 2.0 companies from China, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States.
IBM will use the iDataPlex in building its own Blue Cloud to help clients take advantage of cloud computing. Cloud computing is a strategy whereby data and applications exist on a shared network rather than an individual machine. It is being driven by the growth of connected devices, real-time data streams and analytics, SOA, and Web 2.0 applications.
IBM has not developed the iDataPlex in the dark nor by itself. It did extensive research into the needs of Internet Web server companies and others who needed a scalable server with a practical price tag. It also partnered with other companies in the development, including Intel, Novell, and Red Hat. Similar to its strategy to foster a group of third-party technologies that work with the BladeCenter, IBM will team with vendors to drive a product ecosystem around iDataPlex. Early vendor partners besides those mentioned above include Avocent, Blade Network Technology, Devon IT, Force 10 Networks, QLogic, and SMC Networks.
Knowing that many of the companies that may be interested in the iDataPlex server will be Web 2.0 startups, IBM has arranged with its Global Financing business segment to provide attractive lease rates on the new server and will manage the removal and safe disposal of a customer's existing equipment where appropriate.
There are more than 20 configurations of the iDataPlex server, which will be sold only by IBM. Prices haven't been announced, but first shipments will be in June in the U.S. and Canada and to other parts of the world as the year progresses.