IBM Finally Gets Power8 Machines On SoftLayer Cloud
May 16, 2016 Timothy Prickett Morgan
For a company that is so eager to prove the value of the Power processors at the heart of its Power Systems machines, IBM has sure taken its time getting Power8-based systems onto its SoftLayer public cloud. IBM talked about adding Power iron to SoftLayer’s datacenters in the wake of the acquisition of the hoster and cloud provider back in June 2013, and it had bold plans to double the footprint of that cloud and to make Power iron a peer to Xeon-based systems.
These promised machines are now available, and they are, in an indirect way, a significant thing for the IBM i customer base and are not, sadly, able to run the IBM i operating system and therefore be a direct influence on the market for the platform. This is probably good news for those service providers who are building hosting and cloud businesses based on the regular Power Systems iron that can run IBM i and its databases and applications.
Last March, IBM said that it was working with motherboard and system maker Tyan to bring its “Habanero” single-socket Power8 machine to the SoftLayer cloud, and expected to have it done by June. For whatever reason, IBM did not get its own commercialized variants of the machine out the door until the Power Systems S812LC was launched last October, and we suspect that this is the iteration of the box that Big Blue is now making available on SoftLayer from its DAL09 data center in Dallas, Texas.
It does look like IBM is overclocking the machines a bit, however. The Power Systems S812LC machine has an eight-core Power8 chip running at 3.32 GHz and a 10-core chip that spins at 2.92 GHz. The Power8 C812-L machines (that is not a typo) on the SoftLayer cloud come in small, medium, and large configurations as well as a fat one that includes flash-based SSD storage instead of disk drives, and they are based on an eight-core Power8 running at 3.85 GHz and a 10-core running at 3.49 GHz. (I might be tempted to call that a Power8+ chip, particularly considering that it is being made available in the wake of the updated Power chip roadmap and the delivery of the Power8 with NVLink GPU interconnects, but we have been told there is no Power8+ chip.)
Here is the lineup of Power8 iron on the SoftLayer cloud:
These are pretty beefy configurations, as cloud slices go, and they are bare metal servers, which means customers have full access to the iron in the machines and they are not virtualized with either the PowerVM or PowerKVM hypervisors. The machines support a Linux variant, but which one–or ones–was not made clear, and if you click the software button on the Power8 servers page it takes you to a list of stuff that runs on Xeon-based bare metal servers. IBM is supporting Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Canonical Ubuntu Server and the PowerKVM hypervisor on the Power Systems LC machines, so it stands to reason that these are what are supported on the SoftLayer bare metal instances, too. But if you actually try to buy a Power8 bare metal machine instance on SoftLayer, you will see that it is Ubuntu Server 14.04, the release from last year that was tuned to the Power8 architecture.
IBM is charging $1,020 per month to rent the smallest Power8 instance on SoftLayer, which is not exactly cheap compared to the cost of the underlying iron. This system includes 500 GB per month of bandwidth running at 1 Gb/sec on the network ports; for $200 a month you can upgrade to the full 10 Gb/sec links and you can add up to 20 TB of capacity for another $999 per month with smaller data transfer chunks available. You can add other services and monitoring to the base machine, too. Call it $12,240 per year for the basic Power8 bare metal slice, or $48,960 over four years.
Let’s compare this to buying the actual hardware. The eight-core variant of the Power Systems S812LC with a slightly slower clock speed, 1 TB of disk, a dual port 10 Gb/sec Ethernet card, and 32 GB of main memory costs $6,595 with no operating system. Adding RHEL costs an additional $2,523 and adding Ubuntu Server costs $3,173 to the bare iron price. Add 32 GB more memory for $198, and you are up to $9,966 for the hardware. You have to manage this machine and power it yourself, mind you. And IBM is no doubt amortizing the cost over at least three and probably four years. The point is that renting the machine is very pricey compared to buying it, like on the order of 4.9X.
At the other end of the spectrum, the 10-core Power8 machine on the SoftLayer cloud with 512 GB of memory (half its peak capacity) and two 960 GB SSDs costs a whopping $2,238 per month to rent, or $26,856 per year or $107,424 over four years, the time it would take to deplete the machine both economically and technically in a private server fleet or, we think, in SoftLayer’s own fleet. In the IBM catalog, the Power Systems S812LC with essentially the same configuration–the cores spin at 2.92 GHz instead of the 3.49 GHz speed used in the SoftLayer cloud–costs $35,300 for the hardware and $38,473 with Ubuntu Server. The gap between the cost of renting this machine and buying it is smaller, on the order of 2.8X.
You have to do the math yourself to figure out what the depreciation costs for hardware plus datacenter space, power, cooling, and management all cost to see if it makes sense to rent rather than buy a Power8 machine at these prices.
The other thing to consider is how much more expensive Power8 bare metal machines are compared to Xeon bare metal machines. Here is what SoftLayer’s own Xeon machines look like:
Price and performance differences between Power and X86 architectures depend on a lot of factors, but what is immediately obvious is that the Xeon-based machines scale down further in both performance and price on their own architecture with the SoftLayer bare metal services. But those prices are not as far apart as they might look.
If you take the two-socket Xeon machine in the table above and configure it with two eight-core Xeon E5-2690 processors running at 2.92 GHz and 512 GB of main memory plus Ubuntu Server and a boost to 1 Gb/sec network capacity, then it costs $1,757 per month to rent this capacity. Adding two 960 GB SSDs like the fat Power8 machine has would add another $248 a month to the charge, bringing the cost to $2,005 per month, or $96,240 over four years. These machines would have roughly the equivalent performance, and the Power8 setup is only 12 percent more expensive. The point is, the X86 iron is not as cheap as it looks, and the Power8 machine is not as expensive as it looks from the setups that SoftLayer is promoting, and it is probably best to fire up machines on the cloud and actually run tests with real code before signing any long-term contract.
The other thing is that once you do the math, the hefty one-socket Power8 machine stands up fairly decently to a reasonably fat two-socket Xeon machine. It would be good if IBM had an entry Power8 box with four cores to better compete for smaller X86 setups, but IBM is aiming for heavy workloads with Power iron because it can demonstrate a competitive advantage, particularly with software that is priced on a per-socket or per-core basis.
This, of course, is all the more reason why we think IBM should be selling Power-based machines on the SoftLayer cloud that can support IBM i, but thus far Big Blue does not seem to want to do that. This is good for service providers who are building clouds based on the regular Power Systems line, but it may mean end user customers are not getting the lowest price possible because these machines are inherently more expensive than the LC machines that can only support Linux.
This doesn’t help the IBM i ecosystem directly, but indirectly, anything that helps IBM cover its investments in Power technology is good for the longevity of IBM i. We have to look at it that way.