Volume 21, Number 20 -- May 21, 2012

IBM i And AIX Shops Pay A Hefty Premium Over PowerLinux Buyers

Published: May 21, 2012

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

As anyone who has a past experience with multiple long-term relationships or more than one child will tell you, comparisons are odious. But when we are shopping for infrastructure or searching for a mate or figuring out which kid is going to get what when you finally shuffle off the mortal coil, you can't help but make comparisons. And even after you've made your choice, you keep looking to make sure you are getting a good deal. If you are a Power Systems shop running either IBM i or AIX, you are just not getting as good of a deal as the customers buying the new PowerLinux machines announced in April.

To put it bluntly, IBM's pricing on the new PowerLinux 7R2 rack-based server, which is only certified to run Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux, is crazy stupid lower than what IBM i and AIX shops have to pay. Or more precisely, to get the PowerLinux boxes within spitting distance of a comparable two-socket X86-based server (by Big Blue's reckoning, not mine), IBM has had to radically cut the prices it charges for processors, memory, and disk capacity. The price reductions, which I figured out after drilling down into IBM's pricing information, are jarring. It is a pity that the BIOS inside the PowerLinux 7R2, which is based on the Power 730 hardware, will not let either IBM i or AIX boot on them. And IBM better make sure that disk and memory features for the PowerLinux machines don't work in regular Power 730 machines, too, or it will have just created a black market in parts based on these rather large price differences.

As is my way, I put together a monster price and performance table that shows the relative pricing for PowerLinux 7R2 and Power 730 core components (at the bottom of the table) as well as for the base configurations from IBM (at the top of the table) and for similarly configured usable system setups in the middle of the table. If you are a PowerLinux shop, these are pretty good prices. If you are an IBM i or AIX shop, there's some new discount levels that I feel you are entitled to. Whether your IBM sales rep or reseller partner agrees, well, that's another thing entirely.

There are two different PowerLinux machines, one that has two eight-core Power7 chips running at 3.3 GHz and another that has two Power7 chips running at 3.55 GHz. The base PowerLinux 7R2 and Power 730 machines cost around $4,000, the same price. The CPU card on the PowerLinux 7R2 comes with all the cores activated for $2,047 for the 3.3 GHz version and $3,447 for the 3.5 GHz, As you can see from the table, the CPU cards plus CPU core activations for the Power 730 are significantly more expensive, many thousands of dollars more for the raw computing power depending on the card and how many cores you activate. The new four-port Ethernet adapter card, which was announced in April, is the same price on the machines, but when you look at disk and memory prices, you are talking a whole different story.

For the PowerLinux 7R2 machine 300 GB SAS drives spinning at 10K RPM cost roughly twice as much on the Power 730 than on the PowerLinux 7R2; that's the same thing as saying that IBM's least loyal Power Systems customers--the ones choosing RHEL or SLES instead of AIX or IBM i--are getting their disks for half off list price. Even when you factor in negotiation and other discounts that IBM i and AIX shops might be able to negotiate--and let's face it, if you are buying a single Power 730 to run your RPG apps, your negotiating power is nil, while if you are buying 300 PowerLinux or Power 730 boxes to run a Hadoop cluster, you have a lot more leverage--the disparity in price for the same physical component going into the same physical machine is large. For whatever reason, the discount for PowerLinux customers is not as steep on 15K RPM SAS drives, probably because IBM has to pay higher prices to disk suppliers for these units (which have half the capacity of the 10K drives, by the way). IBM cannot cut as deep in here without eating into its profits. Once again, IBM knows the kinds of workloads it is trying to push onto the PowerLinux machines will work fine with 10K RPM drives and capacity and spindle count are more important than rotational speed and seek time. If you do the math, the PowerLinux customer is paying a little more than a buck per gigabyte for 10K RPM SAS disks and around two and a half bucks per gigabyte for 15K RPM SAS drives. The Power 730 customer is paying anywhere from $2 to $3.40 per gigabyte for the same disks, depending on the capacity and speed.

PowerLinux 7R2 customers get quite a deal on disk and memory capacity compared to Power 730 shops.

The memory price disparity between the Linux-only machines and the regular Power 730 is quite large indeed. An 8 GB DDR3 module (actually a pair of 4 GB sticks) costs $230 on the PowerLinux machine, or just under $29 per GB; this same exact memory module (with a different feature code) costs $1,065 at list price on the regular Power 730, or a little more than $133 per GB. That's a factor of 4.6 higher price for the AIX and IBM i customer. The price per GB is the unchanged for the 16 GB modules (two 8 GB sticks) for both the PowerLinux and regular Power Systems machines, so the disparity holds. And for 32 GB modules, the gap gets even larger. On the PowerLinux machines, the price at list price holds constant, at just under $29 per GB, but for the Power 730, you are being asked to pay just under $200 per GB. How does a factor of seven more money for the same two memory sticks grab you?

Does this remind you a little bit of how IBM charged outrageous prices for special feature cards to unlock 5250 capacity--what I dubbed the interactive software tax back in the late 1990s--or of how IBM had been for more than a decade charging AS/400 customers a hefty premium for the same components?

Comparisons are odious, indeed.

Of course, hardware component prices don't exist in a vacuum. And the PowerLinux machines have other goodies that cost IBM i and AIX shops plenty of dough. For instance, the PowerLinux box has a freebie version of the PowerVM Enterprise Edition hypervisor, which costs $1,999 per core on regular Power Systems iron. RHEL has a lower price on these boxes (matching the price on a two-socket X86 server) compared to RHEL on a Power 730. In the base configuration of the PowerLinux 7R2, all the cores are fired up, but on the base Power 730, there's only one CPU card in the box and by the way, they run at 3 GHz instead of 3.3 GHz, so the PowerLinux guy is getting 10 percent more oomph. The base configurations also have different memory and disk options. Add it all up, and the base configurations out on IBM's site are not particularly useful because you are comparing apples to apple pie. One is baked, and one is raw.

And so the monster table has configurations that I think are appropriate for modern database-style workloads. I normalized all of the machines to have both CPU cards and all 16 processors fired up, and then goosed them to 256 GB of main memory, which is a lot but databases love memory and you shouldn't skimp there. The TPM configurations also have PowerVM Enterprise Edition on all of the cores and a base operating system. I compared RHEL 6 on the PowerLinux machine to RHEL 6, AIX 7.1, and IBM i 7.1 on the Power 730 for both hardware configurations (one with the slower CPUs, one with the faster CPUs). Each machine had one year of software support, but I did not get into hardware support, which is presumably the same on the boxes. (Maybe not). When you load up the machines, this is where the differences in prices for all of the components really show up huge in the comparisons.

On the RHEL-to-RHEL comparison, the Power 730 is around 4.6 times as expensive as the exact same PowerLinux configuration. The Power 730 running AIX is a few thousand dollars more expensive than the Power 730 running Linux, so the delta between the Power 730-AIX combo is essentially the same. The same Power 730 running IBM i on its sixteen cores costs twice as much as the AIX and RHEL configurations on the same machine, which is mind-numbing. And to be absolutely fair, I configured the Power 730 with IBM i Application Server 7.1, which does not have a license to the DB2 for i relational database in it. What is immediately obvious to me is that charging $9,000 per core for the base IBM i operating system is woefully out of whack with other operating systems. It doubles the cost of the machine, and is by far the single most expensive element of the Power 730 machine running IBM i. (More on this in a second.)

So, to make the comparisons really fair, I added the new DB2 10 Enterprise Edition database management system to the non-IBM i boxes and then put the full IBM i with the database on the Power 730. I used IBM's Processor Value Unit (PVU) pricing scheme for DB2 on these boxes.

When you do that, the top-end PowerLinux 7R2 machine using the 3.55 GHz Power7 chips costs $527,404 running RHEL. The top-end Power 730 (which is the same exact iron, mind you) running RHEL and DB2 costs $658,929, running AIX and DB2 costs $661,229, and running IBM i with the integrated DB2 for i database costs $869,669.

Loading up with hypervisors, operating systems, and databases closes the pricing gap a bit between PowerLinux 7R2 and Power 730 machines.

That seems like an insane amount of money for a two socket server with six disks, don't it? No matter what machine you pick. But that just goes to show you how much oomph IBM can pack into a two socket machine these days. And that also tells you how expensive software is, relatively speaking, compared to hardware. But still, you don't want to pay a premium on hardware just because you like IBM i or AIX. It is enough to make you hope there were more clone disk and memory makers selling products for the Power Systems line.

One other interesting thing that I discovered in the course of this analysis. I have been complaining for years that IBM needs to cut the price of the DB2 for i database. That is not the problem. The problem is the inherent pricing of the underlying Application Server operating system. If you work backwards on the Power 730 machine, subtracting Application Server out of the IBM i license, you get an effective price of $487 per PVU for what I will call DB2 for i Enterprise Edition. IBM is charging $438 per PVU for the DB2 10 Enterprise running on Linux, Windows, or Unix. That's only an 11.2 percent premium, something IBM could justify given that supporting DB2 for i is different (I would argue that the price per PVU should be lower to be more competitive, but you know me: give a mouse a cookie and he will want a glass of milk. . . . ) The other operating systems cost a few grand per server, while IBM i Application Server costs $9,000 per core. That is insane, so I now officially have a new burr under my saddle. I will be ginning up some comparisons for other parts of the Power Systems line to see what the underlying Application Server and DB2 for i costs are and what they should be for the IBM i platform to be competitive.


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IBM i And AIX Shops Pay A Hefty Premium Over PowerLinux Buyers

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