Power7: Yields Are Good, Midrange Systems A Go
February 15, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Whenever a new chip comes to market, there’s always a question about how many good chips are coming off the wafer baker lines–what is known in the chip industry as the yield. Whenever a company shifts its chip making processes at the same time as the overall design changes radically, this is a bit nerve wracking. But apparently not with the eight-core Power7 chips that are the brains in the new Power 7XX line of servers from IBM.
At the launch event for the four new Power7 systems last week in New York, which was held on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Chinese Hotel overlooking Central Park at Columbus Circle, I got there a little early and strolled over to take in the billion dollar view. (My own view in New York, lest you think me part of the elite or something, is of the South Bronx as it menacingly wraps around the tip of Manhattan, perhaps as it prepares to mug it.) It is impossible not to be drawn to the view in the hotel, even during the winter with all the leaves off the trees, and I walked over to the giant windows without realizing that Ross Mauri, general manager of the Power Systems division, was standing by the window, too, looking out just ahead of putting on the Power7 launch show.
“You know, Timothy, this is the first time that any chip maker has increased cores, increased threads, and increased per-core performance at the same time,” Mauri said as I looked out the window.
I thought about that for a second, and couldn’t come up with another example, and said as much. Back here at the office, I noodled it some more.
While Intel boosted performance per core with the Nehalem-EP Xeon 5500s launched last March, the core count and thread count stayed the same. With the new quad-core “Tukwila” Itaniums launched last Monday, the core count is doubling, and so is the thread count now that Intel is putting HyperThreading into the Itanium, but the per-core performance is the same. We’ll have to see how the eight-core “Nehalem-EX” chips do when they are announced sometime before summer, and the Westmere-EP six-core chips do when they come out at the end of March. But even if these respective Xeon MP and DP chips have more cores and more performance per core, the thread count remains constant at two per core. The future “Rainbow Falls” Sparc T3 processors from Oracle will have 16 cores, but the threads will stay the same at eight per core and the clock speed will only move up from 1.6 GHz with the Sparc T2+ chips to 1.67 GHz with the T3s. Fujitsu is cooking up its eight-core “Venus” Sparc64-VIIIfx processor for the end of 2011 or maybe early 2012, and that will have double the cores of the current quad-core Sparc64-VII+ chips, but heaven only knows what the thread count will be or the performance per core. Before the end of March, Advanced Micro Devices, which doesn’t do threads, will with the “Magny-Cours” Opteron 6000s be boosting cores to a dozen per package (up from six, but using two chips side-by-side) compared to current six-core “Istanbul” Opteron 2400s and 8400s. No word on what the per-core performance will be with the Opteron 6000s, but it could actually go down to double up the cores–just like IBM did with the doubled up Power5+ packages in late 2005 and early 2006.
IBM was expected to launch the Power7 systems in May, and clearly it moved up the launch to get ahead of this slew of other processors and to avoid what would have certainly been a slackening off of Power Systems sales as customers awaited new machines. So you might be thinking that the launch is early, but shipments will be much later than even IBM said last week. (The midrange-class Power 750 and 755 boxes ship on February 19, while the larger Power 770 and 780 machines ship on March 16.) Not so, IBM will ship on time, and in volume.
“The yields are good on the Power7 chips,” Mauri said to me ahead of his presentation. “And if you are hearing rumors to the contrary, call me up and I am happy to deny them,” he added with a smile.
During his presentation launching the boxes, Mauri said that beta versions of the Power7 machines have been running at four customer sites since last August, making this one of the earliest betas (considering it was a May launch, of course) in IBM’s Power server history. Since December 2009, IBM has put Power7 gear into more than 100 shops so customers could put the boxes through the paces.
“These systems can run at 90 or 95 percent utilization, and we have a lot of customers who do that,” Mauri explained at the launch, contrasting it to other machines and operating systems that cannot run at such high utilization. “You can push these systems and they perform well and scale linearly.”