How the i5s Compare with Other Big Boxes
November 15, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
If you happen to be one of the many thousands of OS/400 shops that need an a server that run in size from fairly large to monstrous, then I have good news for you. With some minor qualifications, the top-end eServer i5 Model 570 and Model 595 servers are absolutely competitive with big Unix, Windows, and Linux iron of equivalent raw computing power at both list price and at the street prices that IBM appears to be charging for these new machines. In some cases, an i5 beats the tar out of a big Unix box, which is kind of refreshing to see.
The original i5s were announced in May, and throughout the summer IBM fleshed out the line, which now spans from uniprocessor Model 520 Express boxes all the way up to the 64-way Model 595s. As the line was being fleshed out, I have been presenting a series of articles that compares the performance and price/performance of the new i5s against the prior generation of iSeries machines as well as against Windows, Linux, and Unix alternatives. The “Squadron” i5s, like their predecessors, the iSeries, sometimes hold their own against other platforms, as is the case with big iron configurations, and sometimes they do not do quite so well, such as the smaller i5 machines.
IBM is charging a pretty hefty premium on the very small machines that are the feeder systems into the OS/400 platform, and while this may seem inexplicable or counter-intuitive, there is a reason for it. I think IBM is deliberately trying to boost sales and profits per machine in the entry i5 market, for both itself and its reseller partners, rather than go for a higher-volume, lower price tag marketing approach like the Windows and Linux markets are doing. If the job of marketing means doing the math on pricing and then the evangelizing a platform’s selling points against the competition, in the entry i5 market, IBM is not really marketing so much as pretending the i5 is in a market unto itself. And if it is not careful in the coming years, the entry i5s really will be isolated, just like the Multiprise 3000 and zSeries 880s are today. If you have never heard of these two machines, you are not alone. They are niche entry mainframes that very few people have ever heard of, and that is true because of IBM’s protectionist pricing practices, which prop up profits in the short term but which have lost the company a customer base over the long haul. As my mother used to say to me in frustration at some hair-brained scheme I had cooked up, that is so smart it is stupid.
For big iron boxes, by which I mean servers that are capable of supporting thousands of real end users hammering away on complex online transactions and that can handle several hundred thousand transactions per minute or more, the i5s are not looking so bad at all. The list prices IBM has set for i5 Model 570 and 595 servers running OS/400 Standard Edition (that’s the one without 5250 green-screen transaction processing activated) are roughly in the same ballpark as big iron systems running Windows, Unix, and Linux when you put the same main memory on the boxes and add in the cost of the operating system and a relational database management system. And because IBM has seriously curtailed the charges for green-screen processing capacity, which is delivered through 5250 Enterprise Enablement features, on the eServer i5s, even big Model 570s and 595s running OS/400 Enterprise Edition are not all that much more expensive than machines without that 5250 capacity turned on. (IBM is basically charging big bucks for the first six processors using 5250 capacity, and then is giving it away for free on any additional processors.)
There’s no surprise why this is the case: IBM cannot afford to alienate its largest OS/400 customers, who have complained about the high cost of 5250 interactive processing capacity in the past seven years. The intended effect of this partial change of heart relating to 5250 capacity pricing (or the side effect of this change, if it was not IBM’s intention) is that for the first time in many years, the high end of the OS/400 platform is without a question competitive with alternative platforms.
I am also happy to report that IBM seems to be discounting nicely on its big Model 570 and Model 595 servers. Big OS/400 shops generally got their AS/400 and iSeries servers with discounts that ranged from 30 percent to 40 percent over the past several years. Last week, one OS/400 shop that bought a bunch of the 16-way versions of the Model 570s said that it was able to get those machines with a 45 percent discount, adding that IBM was hot to trot on the deal. That is about the discount level that Unix players were giving at the height of the dot-com boom and the aftermath of the bubble bursting, when they were grinding against each other trying to win any deal they could. I would be happier if IBM and the other server makers would just set list prices for their servers that were their street prices, and thereby removing all of the wheeling, dealing, and shenanigans. But I am an idealist capitalist, I know.
Back to the high-end of the OS/400 server market. Once again, I have built a gigantic table that shows how the eServer i5s compete with alternative platforms. As I have explained in the past stories, this table shows the maximum estimated performance on the TPC-C online transaction processing benchmark test for the number and speed of the processors shown for each configuration. That performance rating, which is expressed in transactions per minute (TPM), is based on various performance metrics from vendors and actual TPC-C test results; it is the maximum throughput of the configuration if I/O and main memory are not constrained, not the performance of the priced configuration shown. Because main memory is such a big component of the price of a server these days, I have configured a reasonable amount of main memory to each configuration so memory prices (or rather, the lack of memory prices) does not skew the price/performance of a configuration. The comparisons I have made are to show, as best as possible, the bang for the buck for the core central electronics complex of the server and the basic software needed to make it usable for OLTP workloads. Obviously, customers will need to add disk storage, memory, and other features as their own workloads require.
All machines in the table have an operating system and a relational database configured for the number of processors shown. The i5 boxes have i5/OS V5R3 and its integrated DB2/400 database installed. The Windows machines–from Hewlett-Packard and Unisys, which set the pack in the entry, midrange, and high-end Wintel markets–have the appropriate edition of Windows Server 2003 (Enterprise Edition on the four-way HP ProLiant boxes, and Datacenter Edition on the 16-way and 32-way Unisys ES7000 boxes) and SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition. The Unix machines in the comparison have a Unix operating system–AIX 5l V5.2 on IBM’s eServer p5s, Solaris 9 on Sun Microsystems‘ Sun Fire Enterprise machines, and HP-UX on HP’s Integrity servers–plus an appropriate edition of Oracle‘s 10g database.
In the past articles in this series, I topped out the comparisons at 100,000 TPM for midrange machines, and I am repeating that set of data just so you can reckon how much more intense the competition is in the midrange of the server market than it is at the high end–and how the i5 does not stack up quite so well down there. While the i5 may not be a barnburner in the midrange, it does scale unlike just about any other machine out there, excepting its close kin, the eServer p5. The market will ultimately decide if such scalability warrants such a premium, and I think you can guess what I am guessing the market will decide–that it isn’t worth the kind of premium IBM is trying to charge with the i5 Model 550s and 570s.
For this set of comparisons, I am bracketing performance (very generally) into the following power bands: 250,000 TPM, 350,000 TPM, 500,000 TPM, 1 million TPM, and 1.5 million TPM. The bottom two are the practical upper limits for the need for raw processing capacity among the OS/400 server installed base. I know that there are a handful of very large OS/400 shops that will have many of the i5 Model 595s–I caught wind recently of one company with two Model 595s on order and a possible seven more machines in its 2005 budget–but this machine is overkill and then some for the vast majority of the current OS/400 installed base. That said, such big iron, backed by the right applications and what can be demonstrated as a fair price, may breathe some new life into the OS/400 server business, so this is good.
Earlier in this story, I said that there were some qualifications to my assessment that big i5 iron is delivering good bang for the buck compared to alternatives. The first qualification is that customers buying such machines had better be getting around 40 percent off list price or this is not true. That is roughly the discount level in contested Unix accounts. To get that discount level, you may have to strike the fear of unplug into the heart of Big Blue. This is made somewhat problematic by the fact that HP is pushing Itanium machines (Itanium is not exactly looking like a good long-term bet these days, even if it does end up being one) and Sun talks a lot about Opterons, but has no big iron boxes based on it (and charges up the yin-yang and out the wazoo for UltraSparc-III and UltraSparc-IV servers). If you lean on IBM, it will probably suggest the eServer p5 machines, which among high-end servers offer the undisputed price/performance lead. IBM may say no to i5 discounts and try to force your hand to a p5 migration, which for RPG and COBOL applications is a big headache. To call IBM’s bluff means porting applications to big Wintel iron from Unisys, IBM, or HP running on the 32-bit versions of Windows (not a good idea because of the 64 GB main memory barrier in 32-bit operating systems) or on the 64-bit version of Windows (which is only yet available on Itanium machines). Even if you are running third party applications that are supported on all of these platforms, the amount of money you save in negotiating a deep discount on a Unix or Windows box might be eaten alive by the migration off the i5. It just ends up not being worth the trouble to migrate, and IBM surely knows this.
The other qualification is that the performance data for the eServer p5 systems is showing these machines at their worst. IBM has only run a few TPC-C tests on the p5s so far, but the indications are that the company is going to be able to substantially improve performance from tuning and from moving up to AIX 5L V5.3. From the test data I have seen, IBM can demonstrate about a 16 percent performance improvement moving a p5 box from the Oracle 10g database to its own DB2 8.1 Unix database. Moreover, for OLTP workloads, moving to AIX V5.3 should increase performance by about 30 percent. The reason why is that the Power5 chips have simultaneous multithreading (which means each processor core has two virtual instruction pipelines that look and behave like two processor cores as far as software is concerned), and IBM’s implementation of SMT is just head and shoulders above anything anyone else has ever brought to market. What that means is this: by moving from Oracle 10g to DB2 8.1 and from AIX V5.2 to V5.3, a 64-way p5 implementation of the Squadron server can improve its performance from about 2 million TPM to 3 million TPM. For each of the configurations I show in my table, boost the performance by around 50 percent without raising the price of the server. The p5s will win any comparison, be it for raw oomph or bang for the buck, hands down, for the foreseeable future. And that is why IBM may give you push back on deep discounts on the i5 iron. Then again, IBM makes a lot more money on an i5 sale than it does on a p5 sale, so there is hope that maybe it won’t be so smart it is stupid.
November 8, 2004: “i5 Model 595: Big Bang for Big Bucks”
October 18, 2004: “IBM Completes i5 Squadrons with 64-Way Model 595”
October 21, 2004: “IBM Launches 64-Way Power5 Unix Servers”
August 23, 2004: “Midrange i5s Versus the iSeries, Revisited”
June 28, 2004: “The eServer i5 Versus Unix Servers”
June 21, 2004: “The eServer i5 Versus Linux Servers”
June 14, 2004: “The eServer i5 Versus Windows Servers”
June 7, 2004: “How the eServer i5s Stack Up Against the iSeries”