Is There No Midrange In The IBM i Midrange?
May 18, 2015 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As we reported in last week’s issue, IBM has indeed launched the four-socket Power E850 server that has Power8 engines. They run AIX. And of course they run Linux. The have support for the PowerVM hypervisor and they do not require the PowerKVM hypervisor that only supports Linux. The one thing that they do not support is the IBM i operating system and integrated database.
This is a remarkable moment in the history of the IBM midrange, and it is perhaps one that reflects the reality of the IBM i market or one that shows IBM is, once again, giving preferential treatment to AIX shops and current and future Linux shops. Like many of you, I was at first flabbergasted that IBM i would not be running on this machine. But after I cooled down a bit, I listened to what IBM had to say about its decision and figured I would let you know what IBM says about the situation and then give you my thoughts. By all means, pipe up here if you think IBM has made a wrong decision.
“We have decided to not support IBM i on the Power E850, and here is the rationale behind that, and we can always go back and look at it if we get a groundswell from clients,” explained Steve Sibley, director of worldwide product management for IBM’s Power Systems line. “The Power S824 has 230,000 CPWs of performance, which is twice the performance than the Power 750 had when we launched it in 2010. And as we talked about large partitions, almost all IBM i clients buy Power 770s or above for their environment. Those are real mission-critical solutions and they are running their whole business on them. And they need the resiliency features like redundant clocks and all of the things that we put into those enterprise-class systems. We actually don’t have a lot of people on IBM i that are in this midrange area. When you get to this level of performance with IBM i, those customers tend to choose the added resiliency.”
IBM did not want to have customers come down a level in RAS from the Power E870, says Silbey, just because it can cram a lot of performance in the Power E850 box. Moreover, IBM has added I/O drawers to extend the storage capacity of the Power S824 and the FlashSystem V900 all-flash arrays can be directly attached to Power S824s as well as to the Power E870s. (We will get into the details on the new peripherals supported on the Power Systems machines in a separate story.)
First, there is no question that a Power E850 packs a lot more Commercial Performance Workload (CPW) wallop than the Power 550, Power 560, Power 750, and plus models of these machines that dominate the field. Generally speaking, the Power8 chip has nearly 50 percent more the oomph per core as the Power7 chip from five years ago, and with more cores in the box, a Power E850 has more than twice the system throughput of the Power 750. You can see this play out in this chart that IBM built for AIX shops using its Relative Performance (rPerf) benchmark. The CPW and rPerf tests are both roughly based on the TPC-C online transaction processing test, and they correlate well if not perfectly.
I will be the first to concede that a lot of IBM i shops are running on Power 520 machines from the dawn of time, and many are using Power 720s that are now five years old and probably won’t be upgraded any time soon. If the average X86 server has a shelf live in the enterprise of three or four years, an IBM i machine seems to last something closer to five to seven to sometimes 10 years. This is more a function of the growth rate of the core database and web serving workloads on most machines in the base, and it is also a function of the relative price of Power Systems hardware and software. If the software were cheaper and core activations were not so expensive, I think IBM would have more customers using bigger iron and more diverse and sometimes faster-growing workloads. I know machines in the IBM i P05 software tier are competitive with Windows and Linux machines configured up with hypervisors, operating systems, and databases. But this is not the case when you move up to machines in the P10 tier, and the spread gets worse as you move up the P20 tier and then on up to the P30 tier.
And that is the problem I have. IBM has made the gap even larger and the temptation to consolidate more workloads on Power Systems machines is even less likely, whether they run on IBM i or a mix of IBM i and other operating systems such as Linux or AIX. The Power S824 is in the P10 software tier, which already makes application and systems software more expensive than those older entry Power 520 through Power 720 machines that dominate the base. The Power E850 is in the P20 tier, but the Power E870 is in the P30 tier, which has the same price as the P40 and P50 tiers. (They were consolidated for the core OS some time ago, but not necessarily for all IBM software and probably not for third party software, either.)
Call me a cynic if you want, but I think IBM absolutely did not want to see customers downshift from enterprise-class machines to midrange boxes, and yes they would no doubt be sacrificing some reliability features. But the cost differences between the Power E850 and the Power E870 will be substantial and this will hurt those customers who run out of gas on the Power S824 system. And you might argue that there aren’t going to be many of these, to which I would counter that this is an artificial condition created by IBM’s own marketing and sales. The midrange should be the belly of the market, not the hollowed out part. Good heavens, give me strength. . . .
AIX shops will be able to downshift from Power 770 machines to Power E850s, and Linux shops will be able to do one better because the Power E850 will support special Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) pricing for Linux, which cuts hardware and operating system costs to bring them in line with Intel Xeon systems running Linux.
The pricing for configured Power E850 systems was not available as we go to press, but there is no question that the processor and main memory cards on the Power E870 are much more expensive than on the Power E850, which in turn will be more expensive than the Power S824. Systems software will also be a lot more expensive, too, and companies who have third party software will also have to jump from the P10 tier all the way to the P30 tier if they run out of gas on a Power S824. IBM will say that there are not going to be many customers who will need to reach much higher than the Power S824, to which I would say customers would probably prefer to use low-bin Power8 parts and have more of them than high-bin parts with lower clock speeds anyway. First of all, their jobs are still often batch-oriented or single-threaded, and two, those Power8 chips with higher clock speeds (but fewer cores) are a lot less expensive.
For those workloads that can be helped by the addition of lots of main memory, the Power E850 is able to host 2 TB today and will be able to do 4 TB either at the end of this year or early next year. The Power S824 tops out at 2 TB. I have never heard of a customer maxxing out main memory on IBM i, but again, in this in-memory processing era we are entering, if I wanted a screaming IBM i box, I think I would get one with modest CPU and lots of memory and only local flash for storage. Sure, this would cost a fortune, but if screaming performance was the goal, it would probably work.
Perhaps more than anything else, the fact that IBM i is not supported on the Power E850 just sends the wrong message. The idea for Power Systems was that all operating systems–IBM i, AIX, and Linux–would be treated as equals and peers. Linux seems to be getting all of the goodies and special pricing like AIX used to, and IBM i is drawing the short straw, just like OS/400 did in the 1990s. I have said it before and I will say it again. IBM needs to break the operating system free from the database with IBM i and it needs to give it all of the same special treatment that it gives to AIX and Linux. Growing the IBM i business is a hell of a lot easier, if done properly, than trying to convince Xeon shops to move their apps to Power. If there is no midrange in the IBM i midrange, then it is damned well time we make sure there will be one.