Volume 19, Number 6 -- February 8, 2010

The Power7 Rollout Begins In The Middle

Published: February 8, 2010

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

As you read this story on Monday, I am dressed up in my journalist monkey suit--tan chinos, a colorful oxford shirt, a brown corduroy jacket, and comfortable shoes--attending a Smarter Planet press event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Ballroom off Columbus Circle in my hometown of New York, New York. The event, of course, is hosted by IBM, and the main reason I care enough to make myself presentable is because this is the coming out party for the first of the Power7-based servers from Big Blue.

Someone said something about lunch, too, of course. But I will be spending my time looking under the hood of the new machines--the Power 750, Power 755, Power 770, and Power 780--if they are on site, as I expect them to be.

Contrary to the rumors I had been hearing in recent weeks, IBM is not starting the Power7 refresh at the entry part of the Power Systems product line, but rather is jumping first right to the bacon of the market: the kickers to the Power6 and Power6+ machines in the Power 550 and Power 570 class. The Power 570 machines were goosed in October 2008 with Power6+ cores when IBM doubled up the processor count in the machines and the Power 550 machines got the doubled up Power6+ variants in April 2009.

As savvy readers of The Four Hundred figured out at the end of November 2009, when IBM slashed Power Systems memory prices by between 28 and 70 percent on Power6 and Power6+ machines, that price cut was aimed as much at giving buyers of existing machines the same pricing per gigabyte they would see on Power7 iron as it was in helping IBM make the case of selling Power6/6+ machines against Unix systems from Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, now a division of Oracle.

Pricing information for the underlying Power7 servers launched today was not released ahead of the launch, and may not be available until the new boxes start to ship, but Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide strategy and marketing for the Power Systems division, gave me the rule of thumb. "It's pretty simple," Handy explained. "You get twice as much performance for the same price, you get two cores for the price of one. Maintenance prices will come down, too. This is very aggressive price/performance for us, and we are striking while the iron is hot."

Pun intended, I presume. Handy is talking, of course, about the future quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium chips that will be used by HP in its Integrity servers as well as the 16-core "Rainbow Falls" Sparc T3 chips that Oracle will put in its midrange boxes. IBM had $600 million in takeouts of HP and Sun Unix gear, and the four new Power7 machines that debut today are, as I explained in my review of the Smarter Planet teaser ads that ran in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, focused like a laser on what Handy calls the $14 billion Unix opportunity. "We have 40 percent share, and there is a tremendous opportunity here," Handy explained to me in an interview last week ahead of the launch. "We're taking Unix to a new level here, and I read your comments about the i operating system and by that I mean a Unix-level workload. And the i operating system is in this same category."

See, I told you there was an "i" in AIX. Maybe they can call it AiX? Anyway. . . I know what Handy means. He's talking about highly available, reliable, ruggedized, mission critical, dynamic, and thermally stingy operating systems and the servers that run them.

The new Power7 machines offer around twice the performance as the prior machines, but in many cases they offer four times the performance per watt of the Power6 and Power6+ boxes they replace, according to Handy. He also said that despite lowering the clock speeds on the Power7 cores compared to the Power6 and Power6+ cores, the increase in threads per core (from two to four) and the movement of L3 cache from off-chip in the Power6/6+ package to inside the Power7 chip (implemented in embedded DRAM) allows a Power7 core running at that lower clock to do more work than a Power6 or Power6+ core running at a much higher clock speed. "The slowest speed bin Power7 core is faster than a 5 GHz Power6 core," Handy proclaimed, and the on-chip L3 cache, which has a six-fold reduction in latency compared to the off-chip L3 cache with the prior Power6/6+ chips, is the main reason for this fact. Handy says that IBM could have, in fact, boosted the clock speeds even higher than it did with the Power7 chips, but that increasing chip speed by 10 percent would cause the chip to emit 30 percent more heat and the tradeoff is just not worth it.

All of the energy-related features in the Power7 chips and servers, the AIX and i operating systems, the PowerVM hypervisor, and the Systems Director-VM Control systems management tools are what drive this improvement in energy efficiency, and this is what IBM is focusing on with its Smarter Planet initiative. Running databases and analytics as well as highly threaded, throughput applications (like transaction processing and supporting Web applications and middleware) are what IBM is also focusing its Power7 marketing pitch on.

While all of that is interesting, what people really want to know is what the basic feeds and speeds of the new Power7 machines are. I will give you a brief rundown based on the sketchy details available to date and then drill down as the announcement letters become available and I learn more. If you are too impatient to read, you can check out the salient characteristics table I made for the four Power7 machines here.

As I anticipated but not as I hoped, IBM is sticking with the 4U rack/tower form factors that have been around since the Power5 machines a zillion years ago. The Power 750 and Power 755 (the latter one is just for supercomputing) are standalone 4U units, while the Power 770 is comprised of one to four of these 4U units clustered together into a larger SMP system. (A feat IBM has been doing since the Power5 generation as well.) The Power 780 is a one-to-four node machine as well, but IBM dresses it up in a system-style jacket like the Power 595 gets because it is "an enterprise server" and this machine gets a special feature called TurboCore that lets its processors run faster if some of the cores are turned off. (More on that in a minute.)

The Power 750 is the kicker to the Power 550. IBM is using six-core and eight-core variants of the Power7 chip in this box. Processor cards, which plug into the motherboards and which have DDR3 memory slots on them like prior Power5 and Power6 designs, have one processor socket. There is a flavor of the Power 750 that uses 3 GHz or 3.3 GHz cores and has eight cores per chip that can be activated and another that has 3.55 GHz cores that has all eight cores activated and all four processor cards full. Another variant uses 3.3 GHz cores, but only six of the eight cores work per socket, which means the machine scales from six to 24 cores instead of the eight to 32 cores of the smaller configurations. Using an 8 GB DDR3 memory module, the Power 750 can offer from 8 to 512 GB of main memory, which means each processor card has 16 memory slots. The Power 750 has three PCI-Express and two PCI-X slots, and up to 160 PowerVM logical partitions per system. IBM will apparently boost this to 320 partitions at some future date. The unit can house eight small form factor disk or solid state disks.

The Power 755, which is useless when it comes to i/OS, has four processor cards with 3.3 GHz cores for a total of 32 cores and a maximum of 256 GB. This machine only runs AIX and Linux, and will no doubt have a substantially discounted price compared to the Power 750 because of IBM's desire to sell parallel clusters to supercomputer labs based on this node.

The Power 770 is the kicker to the Power 570, the workhorse of the Power Systems range in terms of revenue generation, I suspect. Like the Power 570 machines announced in October 2008, the processor cards in the Power 770 have two sockets per card. The Power 770 will come in two flavors: one that uses 3.5 GHz Power7 cores with six of the eight cores working (for a total of between 12 and 48 cores in from one to four nodes) and another that uses 3.1 GHz cores that have all eight cores working (for a total of between 16 and 64 cores across from one to four nodes). The memory capacity on the Power 770 ranges from 32 GB to 2 TB, but hitting that top-end memory will require a 128 GB DDR memory card that will not ship until November 19. Moreover, to get to 1 TB, you have to step the memory speed down to 1 GHz on the Power 770 and Power 780 machines, and to get it to 2 TB will require the memory speed to go down even further to 800 MHz. The Power 770 node has six PCI-Express peripheral slots and room for six small form factor disks. (The inter-node link for SMP takes up some space.)

The Power 780 is a special variant of the Power 770 that comes in the shiny rack and that uses faster Power7 cores that can be used in MaxCore or TurboCore mode. In MaxCore mode, the cores on each processor card run at 3.8 GHz and 16 cores per node can be activated, up to a maximum of 64 cores. Now, if customers want to get those cores to run faster, they flip a setting in the machine's microcode, reboot the box, and when it reboots, the machine will turn off half its cores, but the clocks will now run at 4.1 GHz and the remaining four cores per chip will have access to all of the on-chip 32 MB of L3 cache and both memory controllers. On database workloads, switching to TurboCore mode will generally boost performance by about 20 percent, according to Handy. By the way, he also says you can overclock the Power7 chips in this box by around 10 percent if the thermal conditions allow it, which pushes it up to something more like 4.5 GHz. This TurboCore mode is not dynamically reconfigurable--meaning on the fly as workloads are running. Handy says that this is necessary because of the complexity of dealing with software licensing issues.

All four Power7 machines run the i 6.1.1 interim release announced last fall, and do not support i5/OS V5R4 or i 6.1. However, both the current AIX 6.1 and the prior AIX 5.3 are supported on the new iron. (I guess you can tell which customer base IBM doesn't want to annoy more.) Novell is supporting SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 SP3 and 11 on the machines, and Red Hat is apparently working on support for the Power7 in a future release. (Hmmm.)

The Power 750 and Power 755 will be available on February 19, while the Power 770 and Power 780 will be available on March 16.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
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