Feeds and Speeds of the New System i5s
February 6, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
When IBM executives hinted that the System i5 product line in 2006 would greatly resemble the iSeries i5 line launched in 2004 and tweaked here and there in 2005, they weren’t kidding. The packaging of the Value, Express, Standard, and Enterprise Editions of Power hardware and i5/OS software will look very familiar to the OS/400 customer base and reseller channels. In some ways, the product line has been improved, and in others, IBM still doesn’t quite seem to understand the SMB server market.
Generally speaking, for base configurations including a year’s worth of Software Maintenance tech and software update support, pricing for i5 520 Value Edition and Express Edition machines are roughly the same, but because these machines offer approximately 15 to 20 percent more performance, they offer better bang for the buck. (You can check out the System i5 lineup in a salient characteristics table I built that shows the new System i5 line and the original iSeries i5 line from May 2004.)
This improvement in price/performance is, of course, good news for OS/400 shops, but makes it that much harder for IBM and its iSeries resellers to make their sales quotas for iSeries revenue. All I can hope is that IBM is giving resellers better margins on these boxes because it has figured out how to make them less expensively–that, for instance, the Power5+ chip is less expensive to make than the Power5 chips it replaced. But I have my doubts that IBM has boosted reseller margins as it has rejiggered the entry i5 product line. (We will be talking to resellers about what they think of the new line after the System i5s start shipping on February 14.)
The System i5 Accelerator for the i5 520 Value Edition, which is a golden-screwdriver upgrade of the base box so it can be boosted from the base 600 or 1,200 CPWs of raw server performance to 3,100 or 3,800 CPWs is big improvement for customers who have modest green-screen needs and who might want to add a few partitions of other workloads to their boxes. And the $13,499 price tag for the Accelerator is about half the cost of doing an upgrade in the prior iSeries i5 520 line–and you don’t have to move up in a software tier when you accelerate. This stands to reason, since there is no increase in 5250 processing capacity. But in the past, if you needed more raw capacity, you had to upgrade the 5250 capacity, whether you liked it or not. And each unit of 5250 capacity costs hundreds of dollars. So in a net-cost upgrade, moving from 30 CPWs to 60 CPWs probably meant paying around $14,000 to $23,500, depending on how much server capacity you added. The Accelerator approach is cleaner and simpler, and it remains to be seen if customers and partners will go for it.
While I like the Accelerator, I would have liked a truly inexpensive, entry System i5–call it an i5 510. Something with a $5,000 price tag for a configured system. Seeing as though 500 to 600 CPWs of server performance is the bare minimum to make use of Java or WebSphere or Domino, it is hard to imagine what IBM could cut to get the price down by more than three grand. It could have been a less-expandable box, with only two drive slots, a maximum of 2 GB or main memory or something like that. I have always believed–and I continue to believe–that the initial sticker price of the i5 line drives away customers, regardless of the fact that we all know there is a lot of functionality embedded in i5/OS and the Power hardware that is missing from base X64 servers. I think you can spend a lot of oxygen explaining that to the world, or you can package servers the way the Wintel and Lintel world does and just compete on both price and functionality. And if I had my way, there would be usable Value Edition machines–with real configurations–that cost $2,500 and $5,000. Those are real server price points. If you want to win business with the i5, you have to hit them.
As was the case with the iSeries i5s in 2004, the System i5s come in so-called Express Editions, which means they have various speed bumps for 5250 and raw server capacity and come with main memory and disk drives and particular software preconfigured. These preconfigured machines are bought in bulk by resellers and are presumably more profitable for both IBM and resellers because standardization in manufacturing and distribution always helps drive down costs. Or, at least that is the theory, anyway.
With the System i5 lineup, IBM has six Express Edition configurations, which span a range of performance, reliability, and budget needs. All of the Express Editions are based on a single 1.9 GHz Power5+ core with 1.9 GHz of L2 cache. The 600 CPW models do not have L3 cache, but the 1200 CPW models have the 36 MB of L3 cache activated. Knowing this is important because Domino, Java, and other new-fangled workloads need relatively high clock speeds and cache memory if they are to perform acceptably.
The Power5+ chip may have been physically shrunk by moving to a 90 nanometer chip-making process, but being a dual-core chip with all kinds of caches and gadgets on it, comprised of hundreds of millions of transistors, it is a safe bet that a lot of the Power5+ chips that come off the assembly line do not have all of their components working properly. My guess is that when IBM sorts through the bins and finds a Power5+ chip with one core and the L2 cache working properly, but with problems in the second core and L3 cache, it ends up in the smallest System i5 box. (This is how you recycle something that you might otherwise throw out.) If it finds Power5+ chips in the bin where just one of the cores works and the L2 and L3 caches are working, this one goes in the more powerful i5 520 Express and Standard Edition. And when it gets both cores working, these go into the biggest i5 520s and the i5 550s and i5 570s. By doing this, IBM minimizes waste and maximizes revenue from its Power5+ chip production.
All of the i5 520 Express machines have eight main memory slots, a twinax controller (with a setup for a twinax system console), six PCI-X peripheral slots, one I/O processor (IOP), an integrated 30 GB QIC tape drive, a DVD drive, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB ports, two serial ports, two Hardware Management Console (HMC) ports, and two SPCN ports. They are delivered as deskside tower servers, but can be converted after delivery to rack-mounted machines. By the way, the least powerful i5 models in the i5 520 Express Edition family can use the System i5 Accelerator golden-screwdriver upgrade for server performance, just like the Value Edition machines.
As I explained last week, all of the System i5 machines can run i5/OS V5R3 or the new V5R4. Customers who want to run multiple i5/OS partitions, or AIX and Linux partitions in addition to their i5/OS partitions, will need an HMC–with the exception of basic Linux partitions, which can be created by a piece of software called the Virtual Partition Manager. And HMC can be used for multiple i5 and p5 servers, by the way, and is not required for the machine to run.
Seeing as though this is the case, it makes me wonder why IBM, the Super Duper On Demand Company, didn’t think outside the box and create virtual HMC partitions running back in the Rochester Labs that could hook back into all iSeries i5 and System i5 machines and allow configuration remotely. IBM should have turned the HMC into a service that it provided for customers instead of a product that they loathe and don’t want to spend several thousand dollars on. (If the HMC is so great and so easy, IBM, why don’t you do it.) But, hey, what do I know? I’m just an English major that loves the OS/400 platform and knows a thing or two about the computer business.
The smallest i5 520 Express is called the Entry model, and it has the 600/30 CPW split for server and 5250 workloads. It comes with 1 GB of main memory and two 35 GB disk drives that spin at 15K RPM. This machine ships with i5/OS, and supports two logical partitions and up to ten partitions if it is accelerated. IBM’s Web Enablement middleware stack and Director for iSeries system management software are bundled onto the box. This machine costs $11,995 with a year of Software Maintenance. The i5 520 Express Entry Plus machine adds Query for iSeries, DB2 Query Manager and SQL Toolkit, iSeries Access (for five users), and WebSphere Development Studio on top of that configuration. The Entry Plus setup of the i5 Express Edition costs $12,675. The Entry Plus RAID configuration has four 35 GB disks and a daughter card for the “Squadron” Power5 and Power5+ motherboard that adds write cache and RAID 5 data protection across the four disks. This boosts the price to $16,572. The Express Edition Growth configuration boosts the server-side CPW rating to 1,200 and the 5250 CPW rating to 60, and increases the main memory to 2 GB; it costs $25,900. The Growth RAID configuration adds two 35 GB disks and activates the RAID 5 data protection through the daughter card; it costs $29,797. The Express Edition Turbo configuration accelerates the server performance of the Growth setup to 3,800 CPWs and increases the main memory to 4 GB; it costs $41,020. And the largest i5 520 Express Edition, the Turbo RAID configuration, adds two 35 GB disks and RAID support; it costs $44,917.
There are, of course, regular i5 520 machines, which now have capacity upgrade on demand features to boost performance. There are two Standard Edition machines, one single-core model rated at 3,800 CPWs and one dual-core model that can be boosted to 7,800 CPWs, The plain vanilla System i5 520s come in three Enterprise Edition setups, which have 1,200 CPWs, 2,800 CPWs, or 3,800 CPWs of base capacity for either server or 5250 workloads. The great thing is that it only costs $24,000 to activate an i5/OS license on that second machine, which significantly reduces the cost of two-core versions of this machine. Last year, it cost $45,000 initially for that i5/OS activation.
The System i5 550 server has from one to four Power5+ cores running at 1.9 GHz and spans up to 64 GB of main memory. It does not have configured Express Editions (which seems silly to me), but is offered with Solution Editions that provide some discounts when acquired with selected application software. (I will go through the Solution, Domino, HA, and CBU editions in a future story, since these are not mainstream offerings.) In the original Power5-based iSeries i5 550 product, the machine had two 1.65 GHz cores activated (expandable to four), and ranged in performance from 3,300 to 12,000 CPWs, and putting i5/OS Standard Edition on one of those Power5 cores in a base configuration (with no memory or disk) cost $74,000, including the base processor complex and the tower box. With i5/OS Enterprise Edition on that single core machine, that original i5 550 cost $266,000. This year’s model is not much different. The 1.9 GHz Power5+ chip boosts performance on the System i5 550 from 3,800 to 14,000 CPWs, and the prices range from $70,000 for i5/OS Standard Edition on a single core to $270,000 for i5/OS Enterprise Edition on a single core.
(I’ve made a table that shows the base processor, i5/OS license, and 5250 Enterprise Enablement activations for the System i5 line. Click here to see that.)
The i5 570 line has been simplified and comes with configurations with 2, 4, or 8 Power5+ cores running at 2.2 GHz. (The i5 570 is the first IBM machine to get this faster Power5+ chip, ahead of the beloved, share-eating p5 line.) These machines can have processor cores activated for a stunning $16,199, and i5/OS licenses cost $59,000 per core, up from $51,000 per core last year. The System i5 570 machines span a range of 8,400 CPWs to 58,500 CPWs. Standard Edition machines cost from $145,000 to $380,000, and offer the same or better bang for the buck as the best i5 520 and 550 configurations. The base Enterprise Editions of the i5 570s offer about the same value for the dollar as the smaller System i5s, too. Their eight-core i5 570, in fact, offers the best price on 5250 capacity in the System i5 line. But the incrementally high cost of processor activations and i5/OS licenses probably means that adding capacity to this machine can be expensive. (I’ll be doing the math in the coming weeks to check all that out.)
If the i5 595 from late 2004 was unnecessary except for the very largest OS/400 shops, having a machine that is about 12 percent faster has given those few customers a bit of headroom. The pSeries p5 595 already had the 1.9 GHz Power5 processors, and now the System i5 line has them. I was estimating that the top-end i5 595 using these chips would hit about 190,000 CPWs across 64 cores, and the official rating is 184,000. Like the original i5 595 machines, the System i5 variants come with 8, 16, or 32 cores activated and can go up to 16, 32, or 64 cores. And don’t think IBM gave away that performance for free. The Standard Edition of the biggest base i5 595 machine (with 32 cores turned on and four running i5/OS Standard Edition cores) costs 37 percent more at $1.985 million, and the Enterprise Edition on this machine costs 23 percent more, at $2.855 million. For once, at least at list prices, the top-end iSeries shops are not getting as good of a deal as they usually do. Then again, list price is not very meaningful at these shops, and discounting starts at 25 percent and then the real wheeling and dealing begins.