IBM Dials Up Density for HPC and Hyperscale

By Nicole Hemsoth

September 11, 2013

IBM is casting an ever-widening net to cover a broader range of workloads starting with today’s announcement of its NextScale system, which is designed to use a stripped-down x86 lure to reel in everything from the cloudy heights to high performance computing.

That lure is surprisingly simple–and all by design. Server buyers on all sides of the compute spectrum are being pulled into the swift current of stripped-down, purpose-driven and cost-conscious hardware. IBM has remained one of the few that continued to swim upstream of this raw-box approach–but it’s catching up–and throwing some performance awareness into the mix.

Adding to their x86 drive, the star of NextScale is the Ivy Bridge processor (one or two) which are nestled within a half-width NextScale nX360 server. These snap snugly into the host n1200 enclosure (a 6U, 12-bay chassis) that can double up to host 84 of these pared-down boxes—or 2,016 cores–in a standard 19-inchrack.

And “standard rack” is the key word here, at least for those who bit the iDataPlex line but were scared off by the strange manipulations of space and time necessary to maneuver around its (useful but) non-standard design. In other words, IBM has taken a “best of all worlds” approach with the NextScale system, pulling the MVP features from iDataPlex and Flex alike to create something that might be able to go head-to-head with the wave of hyperscale (and hypercheap) solutions that are flooding the market.

This new server strain puts IBM in a much larger petri dish with competitive offerings from HP (namely the SL6500 series and the half-width SL390S) as well as similar lines from Dell (the C8000 series, in particular). But the difference here, says System X Product Manager, Gaurav Chaudhry , is that they’re able to offer integration with some of IBM’s key initiatives and products, including their recently acquired workload management tools from Platform Computing, full GPFS support and for the cloudy side, ready-made APIs and binaries for xCAT which, while free to begin with, is being actively supported by IBM.

Dubbed the “economical addition to the System X family” IBM says that this approach offers the density, performance and flexibility to support the diverse targeted workloads. For the HPC crowd, there are certainly some features worth noting—but generally speaking, this is a pared-down approach that lets users build what they need at a price point that’s relative to other bare-bones boxes from competitors. But there are still some things that are off in the future—enough so that we might not see many of these finding their way into the Top 500 before next ISC.

The NextScale announcement is really about possibility and the future, at least for HPC buyers. So far, this is an Intel-only offering, with support for GPUs and Xeon Phi coming in early 2014. While there were no timeframes stated for other additions, including Power, ARM or other processors, it stands to reason that IBM wouldn’t want to be left behind as others march to the beat of customer demand.

With that said, to snap in spicy elements like GPUs or Phi means a need for more sophisticated cooling. One notable missing element with NextScale is the direct water cooling. The version announced today is air-cooled with the possibility of passive water cooling. Chaudhry says that direct water is coming right in line with other acceleration/co-processor capabilities.

That omission aside, there are some other notable elements that will appeal to the HPC set. For instance, IBM will offer well-rounded support for Infiniband, including FDR and QDR. There is no integrated I/O or switching, no chassis-level management, and the attractive part of iDataPlex, namely its front access capabilities to almost all components, was carried over.

For the cloud and general datacenter users, there will be two standard gigabit Ethernet ports, although they’ll be glad to sell additional capability to add 10GbE as an option as well. While HPC is all about the IOPS, latency and general performance, Chadhury says that the cloud customers simply want to get up and running as soon as possible—it’s all about time to delivery, he says

As IBM’s David Watts noted of the new nx360 server addition:

The IBM NeXtScale nx360 M4 compute node contains only the essential components in the base architecture…

  • 1 or 2 Intel Xeon E5-2600 v2 series processors
  • Up to 8 ECC DIMMs operating up to 1866 MHz providing a total memory capacity of up to 128 GB
  • 2 on-board 1Gb Ethernet ports
  • Integrated management with the IMM2 supporting IPMI and UEFI industry standards
  • PCI Express 3.0 I/O expansion capabilities through a 16x riser cage
  • Additional mezzanine slot for FDR InfiniBand or 10Gb Ethernet without consuming a PCIe slot

IBM  took their cues from the positive responses around offering front accessibility (as with the iDataPlex systems) and carried that over to NextScale. Chaudhry freely admits that while iDataPlex was made for its own configuration and offered little flexibility, the idea with NextScale was to “keep all the things we liked and get rid of other things, like the full-width server versus this 8.5 inch wide but deep (versus shallow) approach.”

On that “best of all worlds” note touched on earlier, Chaudhry highlights the difference between the Flex versus NextScalelines s in the increased ability to go as “vanity-free” as one wishes. “So say if a customer isn’t looking for the integrated switching built into the chassis, they have the flexibility to pick their own,”

The key concepts behind this launch are around flexibility, simplicity and scale—in short, a move away from the tricky design and implementation details of their iDataPlex but with more room to grow than Flex might offer for some users. IBM Product Marketing Manager for the System X line, Gaurav Chaudhry says that this isn’t the immediate end of the line for iDataPlex. It simply marks an evolution toward flexible systems that can meet the low latency, high performance, and I/O demands of HPC while remaining lightweight and simple enough for cloud users to hop into without a great deal of effort. The company still has a number of iDataPlex systems to support, which will continue for at least 18 months, but the hyperscale, low-cost NextScale is the real battlefield for IBM’s push—and the shove will come down to price.

As a side note, it seems a shame that the Flex line was named “Flex” versus NextScale—seems the true meaning of these are flip-flopped, with the Flexes emphasizing scalability and NextScale pushing flexibility.

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