Bang for the Buck: Entry i5 Servers Versus the Competition
August 7, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
In last week’s issue, I compared the System i5 Value and Express Editions against baby Wintel and Lintel servers in terms of their performance on online transaction processing workloads and the value for the dollar these machines have in relation to each other. The advent of dual-core X64 processors and aggressive, core-neutral software pricing on Windows and Linux software is giving the i5’s competitors a big leap in bang for the buck. And among the larger entry server market–machines with one or two processor sockets–the gap is similarly large.
Considering that the i5 520 now represents the vast majority of System i5 sales–IBM sources said recently that in 2005, the i5 520 accounted for 96 percent of sales–and that these machines have to win deals against aggressively priced–some might say insanely priced–Wintel and Lintel alternatives, you might think that IBM would have done more to repackage and reprice the entry i5 520 servers when it rejiggered the product line in late January with Power5+ processors. To be fair, IBM did invent the Accelerator for the i5 520 Value and Express editions, which is a modestly priced golden screwdriver upgrade that doesn’t require a formal upgrade to boost a geared-down i5 machine using a 1.9 GHz Power5+ chip to full speed. And IBM cut the price of adding i5/OS V5R4 to a second core on i5 520 machines to $21,000. But IBM is, compared to new Intel Xeon Core and Advanced Micro Devices Opteron platforms, charging a lot more for a bare-bones server in the i5 line. IBM also charges somewhat higher prices for main memory (and I am being generous by saying “somewhat”) and charges ridiculously higher prices for disk drives and expansion cages for disks. So when you build a base system–even one without a lot of memory and disk–the i5 520 Standard Edition machines are very pricey compared to Windows, Linux, and Unix alternatives. And if you want to use the processing capacity of the i5 520 to support green-screen workloads–maybe you don’t want to WebFace your applications or you have done so already with a method that invokes i5/OS Enterprise Edition and the Enterprise Enablement features that provide the support for the 5250 protocol–look out. Prices are, by comparison, very high.
As I have said for many years, I think IBM’s high prices for configured machines–with or without 5250 support–are limiting the appeal of the System i5 among the small and medium businesses that are the bread and butter of this OS/400 ecosystem. It is a very cynical IBM that is willing to risk alienating over 200,000 customers by such pricing practices, and it shows once again how modern corporations just run in 13-week cycles and often do not, regardless of what they profess to the contrary, engage in true long-term pricing and competitive strategy. Any company in a defensive strategy–as Sun Microsystems was from 2001 through 2005 and as the iSeries business has been since around 1999 or 2000, hunkers down and charges the absolute maximum it can for its wares, knowing that the legacy lock-in gives them some leeway to do so.
But eventually, as Sun has done in the past two years, you have to shift gears and get a truly competitive product to market if you want to fight the X64 onslaught. Sun understands this, and may go broke trying to get with the program. It is my fervent wish that IBM would do the same for entry i5 servers. The comparisons I have put together for entry i5/OS, Windows, Linux, and Unix servers suggests that IBM is milking the OS/400 community and thinks they won’t do the math–or even if they do the math, they can’t afford to not pay because the pain of jumping to a new platform is too great.
The Metrics of Comparison
Because the i5 520s are so important to i5 sales these days, this story only focuses on how four different configurations–two running i5/OS Standard Edition and two running i5/OS Enterprise Edition–rank against similarly powered Windows, Linux, and Unix machines. When I was putting together this comparison, I noticed that you could get a base Standard Edition machine with either 3,800 CPW (in the P10 software class) or a machine with a base 3,800 CPWs expandable to 7,100 CPWs if you pay $1,800 to activate the second Power5+ core, plus another $21,000 to add i5/OS. By the way, doing so bumps the machine up to the P20 software tier. This latter machine comes in an Enterprise Edition version, too, but there is no 3,800 CPW, single-core i5 520 running Enterprise Edition in the P10 software tier. If you want a P10 machine running i5/OS Enterprise Edition and only want to have one core in the box, then your options are a 1,200 CPW or 2,800 CPW box. And if you want to get these geared-down machines running i5/OS Standard Edition, forget it. You can’t. Why? I dunno. Ask IBM why this makes sense.
IBM’s i5 product line is too complex, and it is too expensive. There are too many issues for buyers to weigh–upgrade paths, what kind of 5250 support there is, what kind of granularity there is for generic and 5250 workloads, and how these features are all packaged and priced. If IBM wanted to give its own sales force and those of its reseller channel a more difficult product line to sell, it would be hard to imagine how IBM could “improve” upon the scheme it has created. To be fair, and to IBM’s credit, the price/performance of the iSeries and i5 line has improved over the years, but the packaging is a nightmare. No one can keep this straight any more, and the packaging and pricing of the i5 line is out of whack with how the industry at large is doing servers.
As is my typical practice, I have created a table outlining the feeds, speeds, and pricing of the entry servers compared in this installment of the Bang for the Buck series. The machines in the table have the hardware features shown. I have tried to keep the configurations across server architectures and operating system platforms as similar as is practical based on the natures of the product lines.
I am well aware that I am showing the estimated or actual OLTP performance of a given processor complex and comparing the cost of a base configuration. In this way, I am trying to isolate the base cost of a server and show its potential performance on the TPC-C online transaction processing benchmark. Yes, the Transaction Processing Performance Council frowns on this sort of thing. But, someone has to do like-for-like comparisons and the TPPC can’t even get its own acronym straight, much less come up with a scheme that not only encourages, but makes vendors adhere to a wider spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of product lines rather than one iteration of a product. (And, while I am thinking about it, don’t bother emailing me about how an acronym has to be pronounceable or it is just an abbreviation; the usage of the word “acronym” has changed to mean any abbreviation, and IT Jungle is on the cutting edge of word technology.)
For the comparisons, I have put a RAID 5 disk controller on each machine, two 36 GB disks, and 2 GB of main memory for each processor core in the box (there are some exceptions on the core count, of course. Each server also has a basic tape backup, shown in the table.
In terms of the software stack on these basic servers, I have added an operating system and a relational database management system, and unlike in past years, I have thrown in virtual machine or logical partitioning hypervisors, since I think people are going to start using these in production. The i5 has had such software embedded for years, and to make it a fair comparison, this functionality should be added to X64 servers as well. For the heavy configurations of the Windows and Linux machines in the table, I added in VMware‘s top-of-the-line ESX Server 3 with all of the bells and whistles. And for the cheapo configurations, the Windows boxes have Microsoft’s freebie Virtual Server 2005, while the Linux machines, which are configured with Novell‘s just announced SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10, have the integrated and free Xen 3 hypervisor from XenSource. I put SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition or Standard Edition on the Windows machines, and Oracle Standard Edition One on the Linux boxes. The Unix boxes running HP-UX use HP’s own Virtual Server Environment partitioning, the IBM p5 boxes use the Virtualization Engine hypervisor also used with the i5, and the Sun boxes use Solaris containers. I know that the latter is not as sophisticated as some of the other hypervisors–since containers have a shared Solaris kernel and file system underneath virtual machines–but if you want, you can put VMware ESX Server 3 on the Opteron boxes. In some cases, this will make a big, big difference in the price/performance of a Solaris-Opteron box. ESX Server does not run on the Sparc T1 “Niagara” servers.
None of the configurations have any hardware or software support costs. Pricing is just for hardware acquisition and basic installation support. Obviously, getting break-fix maintenance and real software support costs money. But that is a subject for a different day.
How the i5 520 Measures Up
The numbers in the table pretty much speak for themselves, and they speak quite loudly, too. A base i5 520 Standard Edition machine costs under $1 per transaction per minute (TPM), which is about what a fully loaded i5 520 Value Edition or Express Edition machine (which has a modest amount of 5250 processing capacity) costs. In this regard, i5 520 Standard Edition machines are offering pretty good value. Moreover, compared to the iSeries line in 2003, where a similarly powerful box might cost anywhere from around $2 to $4 per TPM running OS/400 Standard Edition and the iSeries i5 line from 2004, where the first-generation of i5 520 machines could cost around $2 per TPM, this is, again, a big improvement. Even Enterprise Edition machines have come down in cost a great deal. Back in 2003, an iSeries Enterprise Edition box in the same power class could cost $10 per TPM, and by 2004, with the iSeries i5 line, that had dropped to $5 to $6 per TPM. So the roughly $3 per TPM that IBM is charging for base boxes today seems like a big improvement.
The problem is that the Wintel and Lintel markets are offering much better bang for the buck. Like ridiculously better. The i5 is on a Unix system pricing curve, selling against Wintel and Lintel boxes that now have many of the same virtualization and database features and that offer compelling value and performance. Even loading up the most expensive Windows stack–Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Edition–with the very pricey VMware ESX Server hypervisor results in a machine that costs 62 cents per TPM using a very modest dual-core 1.86 GHz “Woodcrest” Xeon 5120 processor. Switching to the faster 3 GHz Xeon 5160 Woodcrest chip and putting two processors in the box instead of one more than triples the performance of Intel machine, but only increases the cost of the box by 60 percent because the software pricing doesn’t change. So the bang for the buck on this larger Woodcrest box is a stunning 29 cents per TPM. Moving to a cheaper Windows stack–Windows Small Business Server 2003 and SQL Server Workgroup Edition–cuts the price of the same systems roughly by half. Moving to a Sun Galaxy Opteron-based server running the Windows stack doesn’t change the pricing at all. Woodcrest machines pretty much match the current Rev E Opteron machines. (Rev F Opterons, due in a few weeks, better have some performance advantages.)
Linux and the cheaper Windows stack are about the same cost (which is no accident, but the way Microsoft is being aggressive), as the table shows, and if you really want to save money, you move to Novell‘s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and use the integrated Xen hypervisor, which drops the bang for the buck down to 14 cents per TPM on the larger configuration–the one where the i5 Standard Edition costs 84 cents per TPM. That is better price/performance by a factor of six.
If you want Unix and you like Sun’s Galaxy Opteron servers, Solaris 10 plus Oracle 10g Standard Edition One costs about the same as the SLES 10-Xen stack running the same database. IBM’s new Power5+ p5 510+ Express and 520+ Express servers cost 21 cents and 23 cents per TPM, respectively, with an AIX stack, Virtualization Engine Hypervisor, and Oracle 10g SEO. And for all the talk about how great the “Niagara” Sparc T1 multithreaded, multicored processors are, these machines offer comparable performance to an i5 520, but cost around 45 cents per TPM when configured up. (I am guessing the performance of the Niagara boxes based on other benchmarks, since Sun is too stubborn to run the TPC-C tests on its Galaxy and Niagara even though it has great numbers. Go figure.)
Finally, for Unix servers, I threw in two Hewlett-Packard Itanium boxes for comparison’s sake, but HP is weeks away from revamping its Integrity product line and these are not exactly fair comparisons. The rx2620-2 will be replaced with a new machine based on the “Titan” zx2 chipset later this year, and the rx4640-2 server shown is really a lot bigger than the i5 520 in terms of expandability. I threw in the rx4640 because HP ran a test on this box using the new dual-core “Montecito” Itanium 9000 processors, and I wanted to show that even a single, dual-core chip was capable of doing a lot of work–and from the looks of things, almost as much work as IBM’s new 2.1 GHz Power5+ chips for the p5 machines. And, by the way, these new Power5+ chips are not coming to the i5 line–at least not now.