IBM updates high-end servers, returns to water cooling

IBM announced on Tuesday its most powerful Unix server to date, an update to the System p5 595 that will be based on a new Power6 processor running at up to 5 GHz.

IBM also unveiled an update to its System p5 575 supercomputer that has a more-efficient, water-based system to cool the processors. IBM hasn't used water cooling in its servers since 1995, but the company expects to use it increasingly as customers wrestle with a shortage of power to their data centers.

The new systems, which will be discussed in detail at an IBM event in San Francisco on Tuesday, continue a rebranding of IBM's servers that started last week. IBM said then that it was merging its System i and System p server lines into a single Power Systems family that can run IBM's AIX flavor of Unix, Linux or its i5/OS, now called IBM i.

The new high-end machine, called the Power 595, is due for wide availability on May 6. Along with the faster processor, it uses a new "point to point" interconnect technology to increase bandwidth and get the most out of a system's processors, cache memory and main memory. It gives an aggregate memory bandwidth of 1.3TB/sec., IBM said.

The Power 595 supports up to 4TB of memory, or twice that of the System p 595. The extra memory is good for handling very large databases, heavy transaction loads or consolidating servers. The system can run up to 254 virtualized partitions using IBM's PowerVM software.

"This will be the fastest Unix server in the world," said Scott Handy, IBM vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy, citing benchmark tests running SAP applications.

IBM is updating a rebate program for customers who trade in processor cores from Sun Microsystems Inc. or Hewlett-Packard Co. for its own, Handy said. It is doubling the rewards for HP users, hoping to win them over as HP prepares to phase out its PA RISC processors in favor of Intel's Itanium.

The Power 575 supercomputer uses a new Hydro-Cluster design developed at IBM's research lab in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It uses a network of copper pipes that sit just above the processors and carry cold water to them and warm water away.

Water cooling is more efficient than air cooling -- 4,000 times more efficient, according to IBM -- and it allowed the company to cram 448 4.7-GHz Power6 processor cores in a Power 575 rack. That density would have been impossible using air cooling because customers don't have enough power in their data centers to run all the air conditioning units they would need, Handy said.

Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics in Yarmouth, Maine, said that at one time, the hassle of setting up a water-cooled system outweighed the benefits. But rising energy costs mean it now makes economic sense to use water, because the cost of cooling air is becoming too great.

Handy said it's not so much a question of economics as the fact that customers simply can't get any more power into their data centers. "It's not just that customers are going to save energy, it's that they are out of energy. They've hit a ceiling."

Asked if IBM will use water-cooling in other Power Systems, Handy declined to be specific. "We're not saying one way or the other, but we are definitely saying that water will be used more in future in the data center," he said.

The 575 is aimed primarily at niche high-performance computing markets such as weather modeling and oil exploration, but IBM sees potential commercial use for the system as well, according to Handy, including at "Web 2.0-type companies" that serve vast audiences.

"If we can break more into the commercial space with this system, then water cooling could become part of that play, we'll probably use it in more mainstream configurations," he said.

The goal is to reuse the hot water piped out of the computers in building heating systems, creating a "zero-emissions data center." The researchers in Zurich are working now on how to pipe the water inside the chips, instead of over the top of them, making the cooling system more efficient, IBM said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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