IBM i And AIX Won’t Get Power9 Until 2018
June 5, 2017 Timothy Prickett Morgan
In case you have not figured it out yet, IBM’s biggest priority when it comes to the Power9 processor is Linux. Not IBM i and not AIX, which are Big Blue’s own operating system platforms and which have generated the vast majority of revenues for the combined Power platform since Linux made its debut on Power and System z machines almost two decades ago.
As we have previously reported, IBM is getting ready to launch the Power9 processors sometime in the second half of this year, and officially has not given a precise date for when the first systems using the processors will make their debut. With Intel and Advanced Micro Devices getting ready to launch their latest X86 server chips and a number of credible ARM variants from Qualcomm and Cavium entering the field, there has never been a more intense time for the Power chip as it relates to Linux. It doesn’t help the position of the Power chip that Microsoft has ported a variant of Windows Server 2016 to ARM, either, although it is only for internal use on the Azure public cloud at the moment.
It came as a bit of a surprise to us that IBM was pushing out shipments of Power9 machines running either IBM i or AIX to next year, to be quite honest. It is hard to say for sure, but we suspect that IBM and its chip partner, Globalfoundries, is not able to ship the Power9 chip used in volume one-socket and two-socket machines in the kinds of volumes to serve the Linux, AIX, and IBM i markets this year. The Power9 processor is one of the most complex chips ever designed, and it is etched using a 14 nanometer process that is still ramping at Globalfoundries. Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp have both had issues with their respective 14 nanometer processes, and we suspect that Globalfoundries is also facing some challenges. This is the nature of semiconductor physics at this point in the history of the IT business.
IBM has always been clear that the variant of the Power9 chip that is used in big NUMA systems – the so-called Power9 Scale Up, or Power9 SU, chip – using four or more sockets would come later than the one used in machine with one or two sockets – known as the Power9 Scale Out or Power9 SO. IBM did not put a date on this Power9 SU delivery, but the implication from the latest Power roadmaps was to expect Power9 SU chips in 2017, and historically, IBM has always launched systems that supported IBM i, AIX, and Linux at the same time. The scalability of the different platforms has not been consistent, however, and IBM i has lagged AIX and Linux in terms of being able to use the threads and memory capacities embodied in even Power7, much less Power8 and Power9, machines.
IBM has been mum about all of this, but Steve Sibley, director of worldwide product management for IBM’s Power Systems line (now known as Cognitive Systems, but no one calls it that), did make some brief comments about IBM’s Power9 plans at the recent COMMON conference held in Orlando in May. “We are delivering Power9 this year on some of our HPC and HPDA environments,” Sibley explained, talking up the more than 200 petaflops “Summit” supercomputer that IBM is building along with Nvidia and Mellanox Technologies for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory run by the US Department of Energy. “Early the following year, we are going to introduce Power9 with IBM i and AIX in the rest of the portfolio.”
Early in 2018 is, not coincidentally, when Big Blue is expected to sunset support for IBM i 7.1, as we have already told you all about. The cutoff date is April 30 next year, in fact, and it is reasonable to expect Power9 systems running IBM i and AIX about this time, quite possibly supporting the iNext release, most likely called IBM i 8.1 or possibly IBM i 9.1 to get the hardware and software in synch when it comes to naming.
By pushing out the Power9 launch for AIX and IBM i, this not only gives the company more time to get the new software tuned up for the new hardware. It also gives IBM more time to rethink its systems approach with the Cognitive Systems focus it claims to have but for which there is very little demonstrably different in the Power Systems business. We have some ideas on this, and will be doing a follow-up on this next week. Suffice it to say that what the IBM i customer base does not really need much is a more capacious system for running what they already have – they need something that can support modern workloads as well as legacy ones, all integrated on the same platform.
The bad news for IBM is that it has to sell Power8 systems, which are already pretty long in the tooth, for nearly another year if the timing is what we suggest above. We suppose it is helpful for customers to know that there is no IBM i or AIX version of the Power9 platform coming out this year, so they can invest in current Power8 iron and not feel like they should have waited. But, that said, we think that many shops will wait to see what Power8 and IBM iNext has to offer and what else IBM might come up with on the cognitive front. Those that can wait, should wait, we suppose. This is not going to help the Power Systems revenue stream, and the Power platform could have a longer span of losses than we anticipated as we expected for Power9 iron to start rolling out sometime this summer for all customers.
It is a long time between now and next April. That is all we know for sure.