Servers are refreshed with Intel's new E5 chips

New servers will have better bandwidth for faster deployment of virtual machines

Top server makers on Tuesday announced major product upgrades with Intel's new Xeon E5 processors and technologies that deliver better performance and throughput for robust virtualization and cloud deployments in data centers.

Intel on Tuesday announced the Xeon E5-2600 series chips, which succeed the Xeon 5600 chips announced in March 2010. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell concurrently announced servers with Intel's new chips, and have also packed new networking and bus technologies that improve bandwidth for faster deployment of virtual machines.

Bottlenecks have been an issue in the past when deploying virtual machines, and adoption of the new PCI-Express 3.0 bus and 10-gigabit Ethernet at the motherboard level will improve throughput for servers to loop data quicker, analysts said. Server customers will also be able to deploy more virtual machines per server, which could allow industry standard x86 servers to take on demanding workloads such as analytics and databases.

The E5 chips include up to eight cores and boast a significant improvement in performance, which could be the biggest driver for server upgrades, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. The E5-2600 chips are based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. and deliver up to 80 percent faster processing compared to the Xeon 5600 chips.

The chips are also more power efficient, which could help companies curb power costs while consolidating x86 servers in data centers, King said. The hardware utilization rates will also improve with sensor technologies and system management tools that diagnose problems to keep servers running at peak efficiency.

The new servers will also support more memory -- up to 768GB in 24 slots -- which provide more DRAM for software applications and virtual machines to work with, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. A larger memory pool is key to allowing heavier workloads such as databases to run on virtual machines.

IBM claimed its new two-socket BladeCenter HS23 server delivers 62 percent more computing power, and runs 20 percent more virtual machines than its predecessor BladeCenter HS22. The blade server will support up to four times more memory than HS22.

Beyond the processor, IBM looked at data center elements including memory, software, storage, networking and chassis when building the HS23, said Adalio Sanchez, general manager of IBM's System x business. The HS23 blade is designed for virtualization and cloud deployments, or even database and ERP (enterprise resource planning) installations.

"It's not about the processor anymore," Sanchez said, adding that deployments are about optimizing workloads for better performance, economics and efficiency.

The improved I/O inside servers will partly come from support for PCI-Express 3.0, which is the successor to the PCI data transfer protocols to shuttle data between components and devices, said Insight 64's Brookwood. PCIe 3.0 can move data at 8 gigatransfers per second, which is an improvement over its predecessor PCI-Express 2.0, which had a speed of 5 gigatransfers per second.

Dell's PowerEdge 12G servers use hot-swappable PCI-Express 3.0 solid-state disks (SSDs) to speed up database transactions. By putting SSDs close to the processor, the servers can deliver up to 18 percent more Microsoft SQL Server transactions per second than hard-drive storage when compared to predecessor PowerEdge servers, the company said. Overall, the servers can deploy up to 300 percent more SQL virtual machines per rack compared to the previous generation of servers, the company said.

Server motherboards will also have support for 10-Gigabit Ethernet, which should move network traffic a lot quicker, Brookwood said. Data centers largely deployed 10-gigabit Ethernet at the backbone for incoming and outgoing networks, and then distributed data to servers through 1-gigabit Ethernet. Networking through 10-gigabit Ethernet has been available on a separate chip, but has not been widely integrated on the motherboard yet, Brookwood said.

"It's been talked about for years, but it'll be finally coming to fruition," Brookwood said.

Support for 10-gigabit Ethernet on the server will also permit unification of multiple physical networks with the ability to converge all network traffic into a single 10-gigabit Ethernet pipe. IT administrators will be able use hardware and software tools to partition network communication from traffic related to Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCOE), in which storage arrays talk to servers.

"With 10-gigabit Ethernet you're seeing an ability to go towards a more unified physical network architecture," Brookwood said.

Outside of throughput improvements, server makers are including sensors to track down and resolve hardware issues. HP is including 1,600 sensors in its new Proliant Gen8 servers to monitor systems and diagnose problems. HP's 3-D Sea of Sensors helps identify overutilized servers based on real-time location, power, workload and temperature data. Workloads can be redirected accordingly to keep servers operating at peak efficiency, which helps reduce the manual labor involved in monitoring power and cooling. A set of technologies called Thermal Discovery Services tracks power usage at the rack level to improve airflow efficiency to cool servers.

HP announced seven new Proliant Gen8 rack, blade and tower servers, with starting prices ranging from US$1,723 to $2,878 depending on configuration. The BL460c Gen8 blade server is targeted at the cloud and the DL360p, DL380p and DL160 are scalable servers targeted at multiple workloads including enterprise applications and cloud deployments. The Proliant SL230s and SL250s servers are targeted at workloads related to high-performance computing.

IBM also announced the new iDataPlex dx360 M4 rack server, which is already being deployed at the Leibniz Supercomputing center in Munich. The 2U rack server has warm water cooling abilities, and will be used to provide supercomputing services, IBM said. IBM also announced the 2U Systemx x3650 M4 and the 1U Systemx 3550 M4 two-socket servers which will start shipping on March 16. The company did not immediately provide pricing information.

Dell's new PowerEdge server portfolio includes blade, rack and tower servers that pack up to 768GB of memory and store up to 36TB of data. The PowerEdge M, R and T series servers will be available worldwide, though a company official declined to immediately provide server prices.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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