IBM Peddles Discounted, Linux-Only Power Iron
April 30, 2012 Timothy Prickett Morgan
IBM is getting nervous about the price disparity between Power and X86 servers again and wants to expand the total addressable market for its Power machinery. And to those ends, Big Blue has gussied up some Power machines in tuxedos to match their Penguin-powered operating system. These new PowerLinux machines have lower hardware prices than the same iron when configured to run either IBM i or AIX and, says IBM, can meet or beat two-socket X86 servers running Linux.
The one thing the two new PowerLinux machines cannot do–their firmware forbids it, according to Scott Handy, vice president of PowerLinux strategy and business development–is run either AIX or IBM i. So if you were thinking you would just go out and get one of these PowerLinux machines and sneak something other than Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server onto them, forget it. The machines do, of course, support IBM’s PowerVM hypervisor, and in fact have a version of PowerVM Enterprise Edition that is priced such that the combination of the Power7 machines and PowerVM is a bit less expensive than an X86 server using Intel ‘s new Xeon E5-2600 processors configured with VMware‘s vSphere 5.0 Enterprise hypervisor.
According to Handy, about three quarters of the 1.6 million Linux servers that are expected to be sold this year will be two-socket workhorse machines, and that’s why the initial PowerLinux machines are two-socket configurations. There are three more in the works, although Handy did not tip IBM’s hands and say what they might be. But it is a fair guess that there will be a single-socket Power7 microserver box aimed at hyperscale data centers and four-socket Power7 variants in rack and Flex System node versions aimed at similar four-socket machines based on the impending Intel Xeon E5-4600 chip.
The thing that IBM is focused on with all of the PowerLinux machines is getting slice of the $10 billion Linux-on-X86 market. IBM already does a pretty respectable business selling Linux on its System z mainframes–Linux and other low-priced specialty engines have basically saved that product line and kept it relevant in the data center, making companies comfortable investing in z/OS workloads, too. But to compete against Linux-on-X86 machinery, Handy knew it would have to do something on price. “We need to take price off the table and price comparably to the X86 server,” Handy told me.
Pricing information was not available on the machines as we go to press, in one comparison that put four rack-based OpenPower 7R2 servers up against five Xeon E5 machines with the same configuration–16 cores, 32 GB of main memory, two disks, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a RAID disk controller, a hypervisor, and a RHEL 6 license for the machine–the PowerLinux machine had the same performance on web-style workloads and had a 33 percent lower cost of acquisition over a three year period compared to the X86 setup. Of that 33 percent lower cost, 20 percent comes more or less from having one fewer box to handle the work, and the remainder is the delta in the system price mainly because of very low pricing on PowerVM compared to VMware’s vSphere tools.
It is not clear yet how much cheaper these machines are compared to similarly configured boxes running IBM i and AIX, but I will be looking into that as soon as I get some more information.
Initially, there are two PowerLinux models, and they are based on existing machines in the IBM Power Systems portfolio. The first is the PowerLinux 7R2 machine mentioned above, which has a beak-colored stripe to remind you it is Linux:
The PowerLinux 7R2 Linux-only rack server.
The PowerLinux 7R2 is a rack-based server and is essentially a Power 730 with the upgraded PCI-Express 2.0 peripheral slots that came out last October. This particular machine has two sockets and is configured with eight-core Power7 chips running at either 3.3 GHz or 3.55 GHz. While the core counts are the same, IBM has four threads in the Power7 core compared to two HyperThreads for Intel’s Xeon E5. IBM also has higher clock speeds and more on-chip cache, and for a lot of workloads, this means more performance. The PowerLinux 7R2 comes with 8 GB of DDR3 memory, which can be increased to 256 GB.
The Intel Xeon E5-2600 machines, depending on the make and model, can have up to 768 GB of memory using 32 GB load-reduced DIMMs, and for memory intensive workloads, Intel has the advantage. Ditto for I/O bandwidth, with the Intel chip sporting two on-chip PCI-Express 3.0 controllers and offering about twice the bandwidth that PCI-Express 2.0 slots can. This really matters on some parallel supercomputing workloads. But for the kinds of big data and core Linux infrastructure workloads that IBM is targeting, PCI-Express 2.0 slots will work alright. (Just as they do running AIX and IBM i.)
Anyway, the PowerLinux 7R2 machine has five PCI-Express 2.0 slots and room for six drives, either disks or SSDs.
The second PowerLinux machine announced last week is the Flex System p24L, which Handy says is based on the new Flex System p260 server that IBM announced two weeks ago as part of its PureSystems converged systems.
The PowerLinux p24L server node for the new Flex System chassis.
The Flex System p24L server node is a single-bay (or half-width if you are gauging against the chassis width) server that has two Power7 sockets and from 8 GB to 256 GB of memory capacity. IBM is offering a six-core Power7 chip running at 3.7 GHz if you want more clocks or eight-core Power7s running at 3.2 GHz or 3.5 GHz if clocks are what you are after. The p24L and p260 nodes don’t have front-accessible disks, but rather can have two 2.5-inch disk drives or two 1.8-inch SSDs that attach to the server lid and ride above the main memory when the lid is closed. Both servers have two mezzanine cards for linking out to the Flex System midplane, which allows them to speak Ethernet, Fibre Channel, or InfiniBand to the midplane and then out to switches in the chassis or through pass-through units to switches in the top of the rack.
The PowerLinux servers are certified to run RHEL 5.7 and 6.2 and SLES 10 SP4 and SLES 11 SP2. Red Hat has done a square with IBM and is licensing RHEL at the same exact prices as it does for two-socket X86 machines. Normally, a support contract for the Power machines costs about 35 percent more. SUSE Linux is still charging a pretty hefty premium for SLES licenses on PowerLinux machines, as it does on any Power-based server, compared to X86 machines. The premium is anywhere from 33 percent to 2X, depending on the type of support contract you choose.
I am of two minds about the PowerLinux machines, just as I have been over the OpenPower servers that IBM sold back in 2004 and the few versions of Linux-only mainframes that it sold. On the one mind, anything that makes the Power Systems line make more revenue and profits extends the life of the Power family of servers, and that is a good thing as far as IBM i shops are concerned. It is better for IBM to grow this Power Systems business than to let it shrink, as it has been doing even as Big Blue eats Unix market share from Oracle and Hewlett-Packard. But I can’t help thinking, with the other mind, that it should be possible to do that without charging a premium for machines that run IBM i or AIX. The interactive software tax on the AS/400 and iSeries customers a decade ago was how IBM was able to pay for the deep hardware price cuts that made it king of the Unix hill. And now, it is AIX and IBM i customers who are paying the premium so IBM can blunt the attack of the Linux hordes riding X86 beasts.