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Volume 17, Number 5 -- February 4, 2008

The Power6 Server Ramp: Better Than Expected

Published: February 4, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

With many software makers having made the shift to per-core pricing for all or some aspect of their software price--and moving away from server tier pricing or user-based pricing in some cases--it is no wonder that both AIX and i5/OS customers are looking at IBM's Power6-based System p and System i 570 servers as a means to upgrade their existing machines while keeping their software bill the same or even possibly lowering it.

This may be a big reason why the ramp of shipments for the 9117-MMA and 9406-MMA machines, as the two 570s are called, is better than IBM expected. By moving to the Power6 processors in these two 570 boxes, customers can increase performance by roughly 50 percent compared to Power5+ machines without increasing processor core counts. On X64 platforms, customers have had to move from dual-core to quad-core processors to make the same performance leap, but IBM rejiggered the pipeline in the Power architecture and nearly doubled the top-end clock speed to 4.7 GHz to give customers more performance as well as more memory and I/O bandwidth and memory capacity to support their workloads. As we all know, more cores do not necessarily mean more of a particular kind of work gets done, and IBM's engineers guessed that adding more functions to the Power6 chip, such as decimal math units and AltiVec vector math units, was a better way to make Power6-based servers do more kinds of work as well as boosting the execution speed of Power binary applications. This is a bet that runs counter to what Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and Sun Microsystems are doing in the server space, where they are trying to double core counts in a socket every two years or so. IBM was right about dual-core processing and server virtualization, and way ahead of the competition, and it is a safe bet to reckon that IBM is calling this desire for more performance per core correctly. Not many applications can run on more than a single core, after all, and when you are trying to run a batch job, as so many companies are still doing these days, having a fast pipeline backed by lots of memory is what is really important.

Whatever the reason, the Power6-based 570 machines are exceeding IBM's sales expectations, although it must be noted that the number of machines is fairly low. These machines, which span from two to 16 processor cores in a single system image, are not exactly an entry or even midrange box. By any measure, these 570s would be considered mainframe-class, big iron boxes were it not for the fact that there is even more scalable and powerful iron available from Big Blue--and versions using the Power6 processor in the works for delivery later this year.

Back in late October of last year--October 24, to be precise--IBM was bragging that it had shipped its 1,000th Power6-based System p 570 server, and did so to reseller partner Arrow Electronics, which used the machine for its own back office operations. The System p 570 using the new processor was announced on May 22 last year, started shipping on June 8, hit the 1,000 unit milestone on October 24, and broke through 3,650 shipments last week. (That's if I did my math right.) According to Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy for IBM's Power Systems division, IBM has sold 4,100 Power6-based machines up through the January 29 launch of entry System p 520 and midrange System p 550 servers based on the new chip. He added that of those boxes, 450 of them were for the System i 570, which was launched on July 31 last year and which started shipping on September 14.

If you plot out the Power6 ramp curves based on this limited data, here's what you see:



Handy said that the sales of the System i variant of this machine (9406-MMA) were "well over two times our target sales for the fourth quarter." When is the last time you heard that about System i sales? Still, the System p ramp is a lot steeper. One looks like a plane taking off from the long runways at LAX or JFK airports, and the other looks like a takeoff at La Guardia or San Diego airport, where you are trying to keep from clipping a building. Still, you can't extrapolate those curved forward in time. The System i box can--and probably will now that i5/OS V6R1 is announced and ready to ship on March 21--see a strong uptick in sales, just like the System p 9117-MMA box did in the final quarter of 2007. The System i variant of the Power6 box is selling on the order of three machines per day if you average it out over the 19 weeks it has been available. The System p box has been available for nearly twice as long, but has been averaging more than 15 sales per day. The fact that AIX 6.1 was shipping on these boxes last quarter probably helped, and when i5/OS V6R1 is out, System i 9406-MMA shipments could spike up to 4 or 5 a day.

The important thing is that the 570-class boxes are goosing IBM's i5/OS and AIX platforms at the same time, and that means IBM is eager to get a refreshed and therefore competitive Power Systems product line into the field in 2008. Let's hope IBM doesn't drag its feet too much on getting entry, midrange, and real high-end Power6 boxes into both the System i and System p lines.


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