The Remaining Power8 Systems Loom
April 27, 2015 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The rumors have started going around that IBM is getting ready to launch the remaining members of the Power8 family of Power Systems machines. We had been anticipating that these machines might come out in concert with the COMMON user conference in Anaheim, California, this week or perhaps at the IBM Edge2015 conference to be hosted in May in Las Vegas. We still do not know for sure when the expected midrange and high-end Power8 machines are coming, but they are not launching at COMMON as far as our sources know.
Last fall, when the Power E870 and half of the Power E880, which comprise the high-end of the Power Systems line, replacing the Power 770, Power 780, and part of the Power 795 line, debuted, Steve Sibley, director of worldwide product management for IBM’s Power Systems line, confirmed to The Four Hundred that IBM would deliver a four-socket machine of some kind. In fact, Sibley said at the time that Big Blue had not decided whether it would have one or two different four-socket machines. I suggested at the time that this four-way might be called a Business-class system and given the name the Power B850, with a possible Power B860 version that had more capacity and peripheral expansion. Such a machine crammed with Power8 chips with anywhere from six to 12 cores, would be by any measure a true beast.
The Business-class machine would be distinct from the “Scale-out” Power S812, S822, and S824 machines that IBM announced precisely a year ago with one or two Power8 processors in a single system image. These machines, which have an S designation in their name, are for many IBM i shops all of the computer they need for their database and application processing and is not at all a scale-out machine intended to be clustered. That is not to say that IBM doesn’t sell multiple machines to run IBM i to customers, but is rather a reflection of the fact that most IBM i shops have a single-socket or two-socket box with a modest number of cores allocated to running IBM i work in a few partitions.
For many customers a two-socket box is more machine than they can ever use, unless they port their many Windows workloads to IBM i (very unlikely) or to Linux (more likely but not exactly common) and consolidate them onto the same platform that is running IBM i. Ten years ago, IBM had clustering software for OS/400, called DB2 Multisystem, that allowed parallel OS/400 servers to work in concert on database work, which was definitely a scale-out approach (and was years ahead of Oracle Parallel Server and Real Application Clusters) but which has been mothballed by IBM in favor of scale-up NUMA systems.
These NUMA systems carry a premium price, but they are much less expensive to manage than a scale-out cluster of servers. Clusters can also be inherently more redundant, if set up correctly, and therefore sales of high availability replication software would plummet on the OS/400 and IBM i platform. So you can see why IBM did not go scale out with OS/400 and later IBM i. It would have had an adverse effect on its own system sales and the sale of HA software by the key partners who drive those system sales.
My point is, because there is no clustered approach to IBM i, Big Blue needs to get a four-socket machine into the field for those customers (probably several to maybe tens of thousands) in the world who need more CPW oomph than a two-socket Power S824 can deliver.
If the future is anything like the past, the Power E850, as we have heard the new machine is called, will have some of the high-end features reserved for enterprise-class boxes but not all of them. Conceptually, the Power E850 is half of a Power E870 put into a smaller box, but a lot of the high-end RAS features that were put into the Power E870 and Power E880, making it as rugged as the Power 795 from the Power7 generation, will not be part of the machine because these features are unnecessary and costly. I would expect the four-socket Power E850 to basically double up the processing and memory capacity of the two-socket Power S824 machine, which means it should support a range of speeds of Power8 chips with six, eight, or 12 cores, yielding from 32 to 48 cores.
In general, a Power8 system with a set number of cores is yielding a little less than twice the oomph of a Power7 machine with the same number of cores, and there is no reason to believe this will not be the case with the Power E850. The Power 750 had fewer cores, however, available with a total of 24 or 32 cores across its four sockets, compared to between 32 and 48 cores per machine with the Power E850, if IBM does indeed provide 12-core Power8 chips as an option in the box. If that does happen, then a 48-core Power E850 should deliver about twice the aggregate CPW performance of the 32-core Power 750 from April 2010. And it should have support for up to 4 TB of main memory, too, which is twice that in the Power S824 and half that in the Power E870.
This performance increase between the Power7 and Power8 generations is not, strictly speaking, on the Moore’s Law curve, which has the processing capacity doubling around every 18 months. Even being generous, IBM is taking twice as long with Power processors to double up, and that is one of the reasons Power has had trouble competing against X86 in game consoles as well as in enterprise systems. IBM has not been limited by its engineering, but by its IBM Microelectronics foundry and the level of investment it needs to keep up with Intel and, soon, the ARM server chip collective. Advanced Micro Devices is not much of a threat to Intel, IBM, or anyone else these days on the server front, but it does have a pretty healthy game console business at this point that is making its numbers look better than they might otherwise. The company is getting ready to reveal a new server roadmap in May and has just shut down its SeaMicro microserver unit. Network chip makers Broadcom and Cavium have the momentum in the ARM server chip arena right now, and are taking away a lot of the oxygen that Applied Micro and AMD were getting.
If the impending Power E850 is aimed at anything, it will be at Intel’s future “Haswell” generation of Xeon E7-4800 v3 processors and Xeon E5-4600 v3, which are targeted at four-socket systems and which are due to be upgraded this year–possibly sooner rather than later. The E5-4600 is a derivative of the E5-2600 chip used in two-socket machines and is aimed at four-socket machines with more modest memory footprint and I/O requirements, while the E7-4800 is aimed at machines that need a slightly more RAS-capable processor and a larger memory footprint. The E7 chips are the ones that SAP certifies to run its HANA in-memory database, and the Power E850 will likely also get the certification when SAP and IBM get HANA running on Power, as they plan to do.
Given all of this, I expect IBM to focus its energies on Linux running atop the Power E850, and there will be the usual talk about data analytics and big data and so forth relating to this machine. IBM may even talk about how it clusters these machines to scale them out for distributed database and NoSQL datastore workloads.
None of this talk about X86 and ARM matters much to IBM i shops–at least not directly unless they are thinking for moving from Power to X86 platforms and shifting their database and operating system, too. Recent survey data presented by HelpSystems suggests that very few shops are contemplating such a move. IBM wants to keep these IBM i shops as happy as possible, but future growth for the Power Systems division depends largely on the uptake of Power machines–made by IBM or otherwise–running Linux. By definition, SAP HANA runs on Linux and not on Unix, IBM i, or anything else.
None of us has to like this situation, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
At the high-end of the product line, IBM is expected to deliver the fully configured Power E880 systems, which can cram up to 192 cores into a four-node, tightly coupled NUMA system. No much is known about the clock speeds IBM will support up here, but such a big bad box has almost no relevance to the IBM i market and perhaps not much to Linux and AIX, either, these days.
In his conference call with Wall Street analysts going over IBM’s financial results for the first quarter of 2015, Martin Schroeter, the company’s chief financial officer, said that IBM would launch the remaining Power8 systems later this quarter, so that means sometime before June. I expect this new iron at the Edge2015 conference in mid-May now that we know it is not coming at COMMON. Stay tuned.