A Real Open Power Server, Finally
April 28, 2014 Timothy Prickett Morgan
You cannot get one just yet, but perhaps in the not-too-distant-future if you want to hack together your own Power-based IBM i server, you will be able to do just that. Last week at the OpenPower Innovation Summit in San Francisco, IBM and its OpenPower Foundation partners showed off the first non-IBM motherboard based on a commercial-grade, 64-bit PowerPC or Power processor.
In fact, if this OpenPower scenario plays out the way Big Blue is hoping that it will, there will be multiple processor and motherboard makers who supply components to system suppliers as well as those who design and build their own boxes, like OpenPower Foundation member Google already does.
For now, platinum-level member Tyan, which makes motherboards for all kinds of PCs and servers as well as hyperscale systems designed for super-efficient datacenters and Web workloads, is showing off the first reference motherboard to come from the OpenPower effort. The key platinum members of the OpenPower Foundation are shown hovering near this motherboard here:
In the picture above, from left to right that is: Gilead Shainer, vice president of marketing at Mellanox Technologies; Sumit Gupta, general manager of the Accelerated Computing unit at Nvidia; Gordon MacKean, engineering director for the platforms group at Google and also chairman of the OpenPower Foundation; Chuck Bartlett, worldwide technical support director at Tyan; and Brad McCredie, vice president of Power Systems development and president of the OpenPower Foundation.
As I reported a few months back in my other publication, EnterpriseTech, Google has been working on early Power8 systems that they designed and also has been working with IBM to make changes to the Power8 firmware to make it more suitable for Google’s needs. MacKean did not get into a lot of detail when he introduced the Tyan motherboard at the summit in San Francisco, but he did make it clear that Google was testing Power8 machines to see how suitable they are for running its own unique code. As I have pointed out before, Power-based systems have an edge over X86 iron when it comes to I/O bandwidth, memory bandwidth, and NUMA scalability.
“We looked at OpenPower as an opportunity to launch a third generation of warehouse-scale computing,” explained MacKean at the event. “To break down the barriers that exist between the components–the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts–and to really fix those bottlenecks that exist between the different components of the system: networking, memory subsystems, I/O subsystems, storage subsystems. We are looking to advance that, and we believe that we are technology leaders to steer that.”
Bartlett said that the reference motherboard, seen below, was based on a standard ATX form factor and as you can see, does not use the processor daughter card design of IBM’s entry and midrange Power Systems or the book packaging technology of its largest Power 595 and Power 795 machines.
The feeds and speeds of the board were not made available, but we can take a gander at it and make some assumptions. As you can see, it has one processor socket and it looks like it has two Ethernet controllers on the motherboard. My guess is that they are 10 Gb/sec ports because there is no way a slower speed is going to make sense. I am not sure what the port is to the right of the two LAN ports, and that looks like a keyboard and video ports on the far right of the top edge of the board. The Power8 reference board has four memory slots, and my guess is that 32 GB memory sticks are the fattest ones supported; 64 GB sticks are way too expensive, and it is actually far more likely that 8 GB and 16 GB sticks would be used in a production server among hyperscale customers who are sensitive to price. That gives this server a 64 GB practical maximum memory capacity, which is right where single-socket Xeon E3-1200 v3 processors based on the “Haswell” family of chips from Intel top out. To the left of the processor, that looks like one x16 and one x8 PCI-Express slot. The reference board appears to have four SATA ports and the regular power connectors. Again, it probably makes sense for a production machine to have at least six and maybe more SATA ports on the motherboard, given the one-to-one ratio of cores to disks that many big data workloads seem to like.
The Power8 chip can, of course, handle a lot more memory and I/O capacity, and the processor similarly has on-chip circuits that allow for up to sixteen chips to be glued together into a shared memory system. It could be that the port between the LAN and KVM ports is a NUMA scalability port, which would be a lot of fun if it were.
Bartlett said that Tyan would be selling this board as the basis of systems for software developers to port existing code or create new code. Tyan is also going to make whitebox servers based on this system and these will be targeted at IBM customers as well as hyperscale datacenter operators looking for Power8 alternatives to Xeon E5 and E7 processors. Perhaps more importantly, Tyan and IBM are donating the specifications of the reference motherboard to the OpenPower Foundation so that other members can use them to create their own motherboards and systems.
Tyan did not provide availability dates for the board, but MacKean said that it would cost less than developers and system makers might expect. In addition to Tyan and IBM, Servergy, Inspur, Hitachi, ZTE, Lemote, and Chuanghe Telco Tech, TeamSun have all signed up to work on systems projects in the OpenPower Foundation. Looking at that list gives something of a clue about why IBM’s Power Systems sales have been down in recent quarters. The big tech companies in China want to have some sort of say in how Power-based machines are designed and they don’t just want to buy boxes from Big Blue. That is one reason why Suzhou PowerCore has licensed the Power8 chip specs and is working on its own variants for servers, storage, and other data center products.
“We have had a very successful business in China around our Power technology for quite some time now,” explained Tom Rosamilia, the general manager of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, when asked about the heavy influence of Chinese companies at the OpenPower Foundation. “It is obviously a big market for us and for all the world. We have done very well in the Unix market in China. But this is about the expansion of Linux in China. One of the things that we found is that more and more of the companies in China want to do things indigenously, and create their own models and capabilities and add their own value and derivatives around this thing.”
Hopefully all of this innovation will not be limited to China or Linux and the IBM i community will be allowed to innovate and iterate, too. I know many of us are beyond ready to play with some hardware and firmware.