Power7: Upgrade or Sidestep, Start Planning Now
March 22, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
With the Power 750, 770, and 780 machines here with their shiny new eight-core Power7 processors and the future Power 720 entry and Power 795 high-end servers still on the horizon, now is a good time to start thinking about the upgrade options you face in 2010 if you are running out of gas on your existing iron and your company has budget to buy some new iron this year. If your company doesn’t have budget for upgrades, your life may not be any easier, but your options are simpler.
Customers using Power5 or Power5+ machine, your options are simple as well. You can move up to a Power6-based machine now, and perhaps move from an earlier V5 operating system to i 6.1, and then put off an upgrade to Power7-based machines until 2011 or maybe even 2012 when there should be Power7+ boxes in the field. (Don’t expect Power8 machines until 2013.) There are plenty–well, more than a few but not as many as there used to be–of second-hand equipment dealers who will be happy to find you the parts for a Power5 or Power5+ system upgrade, but the issue always come down to price and if the operating system you have will be available. i5/OS V5R4 is still being supported, and last fall had its marketing and support life extended by 12 months. Now IBM will sell V5R4 until early 2011 and support it until early 2012. OS/400 V5R3, which is still out there in the field all over the place, had its support yanked in early 2009 and hasn’t been sold since early 2008.
Staying back one or two generations may be less disruptive in a lot of ways, and it may even result in a lower cash outlay if you push for a hard deal. But this strategy rarely results in the best bang for the buck. So it sometimes makes more economic sense to get current, take advantage of new features and performance, and buy several years worth of iron ahead of when it might actually be used. The great thing about Power Systems machines is they can be acquired with latent capacity that can be activated relatively easily down the road. This expandability is what has made the Power 550 and Power 570 machines and their predecessors so popular.
For current Power 520 customers, the upgrade situation is a bit trickier right now, since IBM said back in early February when the initial Power7 machines were announced that it would provide an upgrade path from Power6-based 520 boxes into an entry Power7-based machine, presumably called the Power 720. IBM did not give any timing for the launch of this Power 720 machine, or when upgrades will be available, but the lag could be substantial. The new Power 770 and 780 enterprise-class machines shipped in mid-March, but upgrades won’t be here until June 4. Assuming that IBM launches the Power 720 at the COMMON midrange user group meeting in early May, this upgrade from the Power6-based 8203-E4A machine may not be available for weeks or months. And, IBM has hinted to business partners, this upgrade will not save much money on the hardware, but it will allow operating system licenses and serial numbers to slip over (provided you are on i 6.1, given that Power7 machines require i 6.1.1), which helps if your machine is leased or you don’t want to have to fully depreciate the box you have as part of an upgrade to a new one.
The Power 550 and 560 boxes, whether they are based on Power5, Power5+, Power6, or Power6+ processors, don’t really have any options. IBM does not plan, as far as I know, to offer any upgrades from these boxes into Power7 machines. So, you’re doing a side-wise move to add more CPUs to your existing machine, upgrading to a different box in an older Power Systems lineup, or doing a push-pull upgrade to a Power 750. There are worse things than the latter, by the way. If your machine is loaded with lots of features that you do not want to take over but that you spent a fortune on, these features–memory, disks, I/O peripherals, etc.–often hold value better than the processors. You might be able to get a fair chunk of change for the old box from a used equipment dealer to help put a down payment on a new Power7 machine.
Power 570 and Power 595 customers have it a bit easier in terms of upgrades, inasmuch as they are getting the option of buying them from Big Blue. The upgrades are being made from the System p variant of the Power Systems lineup, the 9117-MMA “converged System p” box, and thus customers with the System i version of the machine, the 9406-MMA, have to do a lateral sidegrade to the 9117-MMA box first to move into the Power 770 or 780 boxes. This lateral upgrade is supposed to be a no-charge conversion, by the way.
According to business partners familiar with IBM’s upgrade plans, there will be no direct Power5 or Power5+ upgrades to the Power7 machines, so you have to do a two-step upgrade, touching on the Power6 base. IBM will apparently offer upgrades from Power5 and Power5+ to Power6 and Power6+ machines in the 570 class as long as whole new Power 570 machines employing the Power6 and Power6+ chips are available. The word on the street is that these boxes and upgrades to Power6/Power6+ boxes will be killed off at the end of 2010.
If you are thinking that you will be able to skimp a bit and upgrade into the Power 770 (9117-MMB) machine using the 3.1 GHz Power7 processors, you can forget that. There are no upgrades into that box available from the Power 570s. Any of the three types of Power 570 machines can be upgraded to either the Power 770 or the Power 780 (9179-MHB). The main difference between the Power 770 and the Power 780 is that the latter machine is based on 3.8 GHz processors that can be slipped into TurboCore mode where half of the cores are turned off and all the on-chip cache is available to the remaining cores, which have their clocks goosed to 4.1 GHz. (See The Power7 Rollout Begins In The Middle for more on that and the feeds and speeds on these two boxes.)
There are apparently some gotchas with the upgrades to the Power7 boxes. IBM is doing a processor feature conversion, not a system conversion. So, for instance, if you have a 16-core version of the Power6-based 9117-MMA Power 570 box, you are only going to convert two of the processor cards to two Power7 feature cards, which will have 32 cores in total. If you only convert one Power6 card, you cannot upgrade it later to a Power7 card, obviously. And in a move I have never seen before, IBM is not taking back the remaining Power6 feature cards from the Power 570 box. Customers get to keep these and use them as they see fit. Like, for instance, selling them on the open market. IBM is telling business partners that the value of the unconverted feature cards is already factored into the upgrade prices. Meaning, I presume, the upgrade price is higher than you think it ought to be because IBM assumes you will sell the unconverted gear? I dunno. . . .
What is important, of course, is that the processor activations do convert. So if you had 16 cores turned on, when you upgrade to a Power 770 or 780, you have 16 cores. IBM says that these processor activations represent about 80 percent of the cost of the processor card and processor activation combo. This is true of all Power Systems iron, past and present.
Memory conversions for Power 570 to 770 or 780 upgrades will work the same way. You move from DDR2 to DDR3 modules, and memory features will convert over one for one, just like processor features. The Power 770 and 780 require a lot fewer memory features per card, so there will be plenty left over. However, memory activations on a per gigabyte basis will convert over as part of the upgrade. And again, this represents the vast majority of the cost of the memory in a Power-based box in the enterprise class.
IBM is offering two different types of upgrades into the Power 770 and 780 machines. The first is a side-by-side upgrade that can be scheduled to take from one to eight weeks that allows customers to gradually move workloads over from one machine to another. IBM is also offering what it calls a Power Exchange, or PEX, upgrade, where you can keep the boxes side-by-side for a longer time, but you have to license software for a short term on both machines and the resulting Power 770 or 780 box has a different serial number.
Without the Power 795 machines being here, it is a bit tough to reckon what the right course of action is, but IBM is giving business partners and their customers some guidance. If you have an older System p 590 or 595 or System i 595 machine using the 1.65 GHz, 1.9 GHz, or 2.1 GHz Power5 or Power5+ chips, IBM suggests that you can get a new Power 770 or 780 and ditch the old machine, or do an upgrade to a Power6-based Power 595. (As we reported in recent weeks, IBM cut the prices on Power6 feature cards in the Power 595 three weeks ago, and just reduced prices on upgrades from the older iron to the Power6 versions of the 595 server a week later.) If you have a System p or System i 595 with 64 of the 2.1 GHz or 2.3 GHz Power5+ cores, IBM thinks you can do a push-pull to a Power 780, or upgrade to a Power 585 using Power6 processors and upgrade to a Power 795 later. If you have a topped-out Power 595 machine, you can get a Power 780 today or wait for the Power 795 and do an upgrade. Getting a Power 780 in that latter case is not going to result in much more oomph. A 64-core Power 595 is rated at 294,700 CPWs running OS/400-i workloads, while a 64-core Power 780 is rated at 343,050. That’s only 16.4 percent more oomph. Power 595 customers with fully loaded boxes are going to have to wait until the Power 795 comes out if they need more headroom than that.