ServersServer Snapshots: IBM System x3850 M2 and x3950 M2

Server Snapshots: IBM System x3850 M2 and x3950 M2

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Drew Robb

Big Blue is bringing scale up to a scale out world.

Aimed at the higher end of the x86 market, IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) now offers several high-performance machines known as the System x3850 M2 and x3950 M2 (M2 just stands for Mark II). They make use of the latest Intel Xeon processors and offer plenty of memory and a host of configuration options.

“The x3850 and x3950 employ a modular approach that connects up to four quad-socket building blocks,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata (Nashua, N.H.). “As befits a Big Iron server, reliability and availability features are much in evidence.”


The entry-level x3950 is a quad-socket server that can expand modularly to 16 sockets and 64 cores. All it takes is more server boxes. IBM intends this to be a pay-as-you-go architecture. Need more processing power? Hook up another box. The server comes in 4U building blocks. These are typically assembled at the factory and shipped to the customer. They can also be hooked up relatively easily on-site. An on-board management controller makes system control relatively easy.

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The x3950 harnesses Intel Xeon MP processors — up to 3.5 GHz dual core. It is supplied with up to 16 MB of L3 cache per processor and up to 64 GB of memory per chassis. Six PCI-X slots are available per box. To accommodate a scale-up approach, IBM has kitted the server out with plenty of advanced memory features.

“IBM refers to its approach to attaching memory in the x3850 M2 and x3950 M2 as Xcelerated Memory Technology,” said Haff. “It also implements a variety of memory availability features, such as Chipkill, Memory ProteXion and memory mirroring.”

Memory ProteXion uses redundant bits in a data packet to provide backup in the event of a DIMM failure. Memory scrubbing is an automatic daily test of all the system memory that detects and reports memory errors that might be developing before they cause a server outage. These two memory features work in concert. If the error found in scrubbing is recoverable, Memory ProteXion is enabled to deal with it. If it isn’t recoverable, memory scrubbing sends an error message to turn on the proper lights and LEDs to guide the admin to the damaged DIMM.

Another memory feature is mirroring: Memory is divided in two ports, and one port is mirrored to the other half. Chipkill memory, on the other hand, corrects multiple single-bit errors to keep a DIMM from failing. When combined with Memory ProteXion, it adds significantly to server reliability.

In addition to these memory features, IBM has leveraged its mainframe and supercomputer experience in these newer System x machines. This is the fourth generation of X-Architecture chipsets incorporated into its Intel-based servers.

“With X-Architecture, IBM successfully blended enterprise capabilities with the volume economies of x86 computing,” said James Northington, vice president and business line executive, IBM System x.

This system is also virtualization-ready right out of the box, no software setup or installation necessary. This is accomplished via a 4GB USB flash storage device. A preloaded hypervisorcapability makes it easier to deploy virtualized server applications.


The x3850 is based on the same architecture as the x3950. Like the x3950 it has IBM advanced memory functionality. Although the x3850 is the junior partner, it is still handy to have around. Big Blue targets it at commercial application serving and database performance, as well as virtualization.

“The x3850 is excellent for midtier application serving and smaller consolidation projects, as well as database serving and hosting,” said Jay Bretzmann, manager of System x offerings at IBM. The x3950 is more for back-end database serving, large scale consolidation projects and ERP.”

The x3850 is a 4-processor, 4U rack server that uses the Intel Xeon Series 7200 and 7300 processors. It provides up to 2.4 GHz (dual-core) and 2.93 GHz (quad-core) speeds with up to 8MB of L2 cache. It features seven PCI-Express x8 I/O expansion slots and is highly scalable. Bretzmann noted that the Scale Expander Option kit can convert the x3850 to the x3950. From there, more building blocks can then be added.

Pricing for the x3950 begins at just under $14,000. A basic x3850 server consisting of 2 dual-core Xeon E7210 processors (2.40GHz) with 4 GB RAM and no hard drives is priced slightly more than $10,000. For 2 quad-core Xeon X7350 processors (2.93GHz), 8 GB memory and no drives you pay $18,183.

Haff of Illuminata said he believes these System x machines are unmatched in the x86 space. “IBM’s newest Intel-based servers have no real direct competitors,” said Haff. “They scale up x86 in a world where scale out is the dominant norm.”

His assertion is backed up by recent benchmarks. The x3850 server running 64-bit IBM DB2 and Linux recently set a new record for 4-processor performance on the TPC-C benchmark. Its score of 516,752 tpmC for C online transaction processing easily beat out an HP ProLiant DL580G5.

The x3950, on the other hand, excelled in the TPC-H benchmark. Using the quad-core Xeon X7350 processor, it scored 46,034.4 QphH@300GB on this business intelligence benchmark while running Microsoft SQL Server 2005 and Windows Server 2003 Enterprise x64 Edition. This is said to be the highest score recorded for a non-clustered system on this test.

“You can get 500,000 transactions per minute out of the x3850 and 841,000 from a 2-chassis x3950,” said Bretzmann. “That’s why there is not a lot of competition for them, particularly in the case of the x3950.”

The IBM System x3850 M2 and x3950 M2 Close Up


x3850 x3950
Vendor IBM IBM
Platform x86 x86
Dimensions 4U 4U
Processor Details 4 Intel Xeon Series 7200 and 7300 processors Up to 32 Intel Xeon MP dual-core processors
Hard Drives 4 SAS drives for up to 587 GB of internal storage 6 SAS drives for up to 440.4 GB internal storage
Operating Systems Windows, Red Hat and SUSE Windows, Red Hat and SUSE
Configuration Options $10,129 for a server with 2 dual-core Xeon E7210 (2.40GHz) processors, 4 GB AM and no hard disks
$18,183 for 2 quad-core Xeon X7350 (2.93GHz) processors, 8 GB memory, no drives
Starts at $13,799
Availability Now available Now available
Warranty Three years Three years

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