It’s good to see IBM has returned to the world of x86 server innovation with its latest eX5 line of servers announced this week. Shortly after IBM sold off its PC business to Lenovo, rumors began to circulate that its System x business wouldn’t be far behind and evidence abounded that the rumors might be true. Outside of BladeCenter, there seemed to be no significant differentiation in IBM’s fourth generation of System x servers from the average x86 server in the 1-4 socket segment. In prior generations, IBM had innovated in very visible ways with unique motherboard designs and server chipsets that enabled high socket counts, unique configurations and RAS capabilities, and a wide portfolio. Part of the blame could be laid at Intel and AMD’s feet as they entered the server chipset business in order to drive greater standardization and CPU empowerment. But it looked like others in the server business were out-innovating IBM in the high volume segments during this time by finding ways to uniquely configure the hardware that strongly mirrored changing buyer behaviors.

Now with the eX5 line, IBM appears to be back. We’re by no means declaring victory for this round of servers but acknowledging the positive change. Much of what was announced was either present before but not well marketed (some of Director’s, Tivoli Provisioning Manager’s or Open Fabric Manager’s capabilities), or catchup (Virtual Fabric versus HP Flex Fabric, for example), where others are moves ahead. It’s the combination of Max5 for high capacity memory configurations and FlexNode to partitioning systems for licensing purposes that should be the most eye-catching for infrastructure and operations professionals. According to Forrester surveys and inquiries nearly every enterprise is packing more VMs onto each server it purchases and has an endless thirst for memory and I/O bandwidth to keep pushing its consolidation efforts harder. In these dense situations (and especially true with the latest Xeon and Opteron CPUs) it is rarely the processor that bottlenecks, causing organizations to seek lopsided configurations. Max5 provides a simple and effective way to reach new heights in memory capacities (up to 24 additional DIMMs per blade and 32 more for racks) without having to jump up to a processor count you simply don’t need (and don’t want to pay a higher software license for). Expect other vendors to follow in this quest with memory expansion innovations of their own. Memory enhancement also comes in the form of IBM’s eXFlash SSD which dramatically increases the amount of flash memory that can be added to a single system. One could call this a direct response to Oracle’s ExaData database appliance, but the IBM approach is more widely applicable. On the I/O front, everyone’s answer is an upgrade to 10GbE which seems inevitable for more and more dense virtualization environments. We’re all still waiting for the price points of the technology to improve and briefings from the leading vendors suggests just such a drop is due in the second half of 2010. We’ll leave the arguing as to the relative merits of IBM Virtual Fabric or HP FlexFabric for the vendors to debate at this time, but whichever way you lean you will likely find goodness in these innovations. The enhancement we suspect will be most appreciated by I&O pros is FlexNode, a new partitioning capability, brought down from the System P lineup, which helps enterprises deal with the confusing, myriad software license restrictions commercial software vendors are imposing in this era of virtualization. Why should you have to pay for a two-socket license for an application that can’t even exercise more than two cores on a single socket Xeon 5500 server? This capability, which also allows the logical ganging together of two physically separate systems, is a welcome addition to the x86 world. We also applaud IBM’s aggressiveness in announced the new System x lineup ahead of the official launch of Intel and AMD’s new processors. The usual routine calls for the server vendors to wait for these components to be announced in order to avoid pre-empting details of these new parts. IBM deftly sidestepped this concern opening a window in the press just for itself.

Welcome back System x.

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