Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 9, 2023

IBM Forges Flex Converged Systems With Intel Xeon E7s 

Just because IBM is in the middle of trying to sell off its System x X86 server business to Lenovo Group does not mean that the system engineering stops. In fact, one of the things that the Chinese system maker is willing to pay $2.3 billion for is the ongoing development of the System x line to keep it competitive with rival systems from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Fujitsu, Oracle, and others.

To that end, at the Edge 2014 shindig in Las Vegas, IBM’s top brass in the Systems and Technology Group are rolling out new versions of the Flex System converged systems, which compete with the likes of the UCS platforms from Cisco Systems. The new machines are based on Intel’s latest “Ivy Bridge-EX” Xeon E7 v2 processors, which made their debut in February. Big Blue, you will recall, was eager to get its initial rack-based Xeon E7 v2 machines, the modular System x3850 X6 and x3950 X6, out the door in January ahead of Intel announcement and, perhaps coincidentally, just as the rumors about IBM selling the X86 server business off to Lenovo were about to surface. IBM also gave a sneak peek at a Flex System node based on the Xeon E7 v2s and it is these machines that are unveiled today in Las Vegas.

There are three models of the Flex System X6 servers, as it turns out, not just the one. The machines are all related and are double-wide machines that slide into the Flex System chassis, which brings together compute, storage, and networking in the same box and under the control of the same Flex System Manager. The Flex x280 X6 machine is a double-wide node with two Xeon E7-2800 v2 series processors, which are only capable of scaling up to two-way processing in a NUMA configuration. The Flex x480 X6 stacks two of these nodes together and allows them to be linked into a four-way configuration using a scalability interconnect port that hooks into the Intel “Patsburg” C602J chipset and allows for up to four of the Xeon E7-4800 v2 processors in the Ivy Bridge-EX family to be linked through NUMA into a shared memory system. The Flex x800 X6, and you have probably guessed, takes four of these units and links them together with two scalability links into a machine with a total of eight processor sockets. As the scalability of the Xeon E7 v2 processors increases, so do their prices, so it is important to figure out how far you want to push the machine from the get-go. Moreover, you have to run the same generation of Xeon E7 v2 processors at the same clock speed in the machine. If you mix different clock speeds, all of the processors in the box will clock down to the slowest processor in the box. (This is not anything peculiar about the IBM X6 design but rather the way that Intel’s C602J chipset works.) The top-end Xeon E7 v2 chip has fifteen cores running at 2.8 GHz.

Each socket in these Flex System X6 nodes systems can be equipped with 24 memory sticks and they can be as large as 64 GB in size each. So on the Flex System x880 X6, the eight-node machine can have a total of 192 sockets and 12 TB of main memory. To get that maximum memory per socket, you need to use load-reduced (LRDIMM) sticks; if you use normal registered (RDIMM) sticks, then the memory tops out at 384 GB per socket using 16 GB sticks instead of 1.5 TB. Memory speeds for both RDIMMs and LRDIMMs can go as high as 1.6 GHz but no faster. You can use regular 1.5 volt or 1.35 volt (so-called low volt) main memory.

Here is what the internals of the Flex X6 nodes look like:


Each of the Flex System X6 nodes has room for two 2.5-inch hot-swap disk drives, which can be either SAS or SATA units. You can use the integrated LSI SAS3004 arrays on the nodes to create a four-drive RAID 10 array across two nodes in the system, or two RAID 10 groups across the Flex x880 X6 system.

The x480 x6 is the standard model in the line and it can be equipped with only a subset of the Xeon E7 v2 processors. To be specific, you can choose the six-core E7-4809, which runs at 1.9 GHz; the twelve-core E7-4850, which runs at 2.3 GHz; and the fifteen-core Xeon E7-4880, which runs at 2.5 GHz. You can order different processors, or a two-way or eight-way setup, but these are not standard configurations but rather build-to-order. The Flex System chassis has room for seven double-wide compute nodes, so you can only get one eight-way in the system with room left over for two single-wide nodes of your choosing.

ibm-flex-x6Compared to the prior generation of BladeCenter HX5 blade servers, IBM says that the combination of increased core counts with the Xeon E7 v2 processors and the use of eXFlash memory channel storage in some of the memory slots, the four-socket Flex x480 X6 delivers twice the performance of the four-socket HX5 blade and the eight-socket Flex x880 X6 delivers four times the oomph.

Speaking of flash-based DIMM storage, which IBM gets from SanDisk, Big Blue says that it will eventually offer the eXFlash modules in the new Flex x280, x480, and x880 machines as well as in the existing Flex x240 two-socket nodes based on the workhorse Xeon E5 v2 processors from Intel. IBM is supporting up to 32 eXFlash modules on the two-socket Flex x280, for a total of 6.4 TB of flash. On the four-socket node this doubles up to 12.8 TB, as you might expect, but for some reason on the eight-way Flex x880 setup, the eXFlash is capped at 12.8 TB. IBM is also supporting up to eight 1.8-inch flash-based solid state drives in each enclosure, if customers want to use flash instead of disks for operating system and local storage.

In addition to the statement of direction on eXFlash support, IBM is also telling customers that it will eventually get the new machines certified to support SAP’s in-memory HANA database and the various enterprise applications and development environment that rides on top of HANA.

The three new Flex nodes based on the Xeon E7 v2 processors will be available on June 13. Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012 are supported on the nodes, as is SUSE Linux’s Enterprise Server 11 SP3 and Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux 6.4. VMware’s ESXi 5.1 Update 2 and 5.5 hypervisors are supported on the machines as well and come installed on an internal USB stick on the servers.

A base Flex x280 node with a single 12-core processor running at 2.3 GHz and 64 GB of main memory costs $16,817. An “elite package” of the Flex x880 using the top-end E7-8890 v2 processors, which have fifteen cores spinning at 2.8 GHz, and with 1.5 TB of main memory across the nodes costs $79,957.

With the deal to sell off the System x business still pending, IBM is keen to remind everyone that it is business as usual until that deal closes, and more importantly, as System x general manager Adalio Sanchez explained to EnterpriseTech earlier this year, the IBM teams that support all System x products will stay with Big Blue and will support the products for at least five years. The engineering teams will move over to Lenovo and the Chinese company will take over the task of designing and manufacturing machines that IBM then resells in its PureSystems family under that brand. Sanchez is, by the way, among the 7,500 IBMers who will be making the move to Lenovo when the deal closes.