IBM Readies Mainstream Power9 Iron For Launch
February 5, 2018 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The natives are getting restless, as my parents used to say when we were getting hungry. And the IBM i and AIX bases are definitely getting restless to know what Power9 iron that will be able to run Big Blue’s own operating systems in conjunction with the PowerVM server virtualization hypervisor. They also want to know if IBM is going to give customers a big improvement in price/performance compared to Power7+ and Power8 machines that are still widely available in the channel.
In short, they want to plan their future, and after four years of waiting, it is time.
IBM has been pretty vague about when the Power9 machines will be rolled out, but we have been under the impression since last June that the IBM i and AIX platforms would not be supported on Power9 hardware until early 2018, which we presumed meant March or April, perhaps even May during the PowerUp18 (formerly known as COMMON 2018) conference that is centered, more or less, around the IBM i platform with a smattering of AIX and Linux. It seems that IBM has firmed up its plans, according to the latest scuttlebutt out there in the community of resellers and business partners, and the rollout will work its way up the product line from bottom to top, excepting the supercomputer-focused AC922 system that IBM already launched last December and that, as far as we hear, is supply constrained at the moment. That is a good sign, unless you ponder the fact that the same “Nimbus” Power9 scale out chips that are used in the AC922 are also used in the machines that will be aimed at IBM i and AIX shops. Hopefully the shortages have to do with the availability of “Volta” Tesla GPU accelerators from Nvidia.
Here is what the rumors are suggesting the cadence will be for the rollout for the Power9 machines for the coming year. The “Newell” system that the AC922 is based is out in an air-cooled version, but the water-cooled version, which can be used in very dense rack configurations and possibly overclocked to push more work through a rack of machines, will come out some time in the second quarter, as expected.
The main machine aimed at IBM i shops, but which is also capable of running AIX or Linux as well as the PowerVM hypervisor, is apparently expected to come out during the first quarter of 2018. We are expecting this machine to be launched sometime in March, but it could fire off earlier than that to try to get more sales into the first quarter. The IBM i and AIX entry machines are code-named “ZZ,” apparently after ZZ Top, the 1980s rock band. If history is any guide, this ZZ system will come with one or two sockets and in a 2U or 4U form factor. We expect that this system will run the big endian version of Linux (the latest releases from Red Hat for sure and possibly releases from SUSE Linux and Canonical) as well as IBM i 7.2 and 7.3, the two current releases of the venerable OS/400 platform.
We are hearing that a Linux-only Power9 platform based on the Nimbus Power9 scale-out chip, code-named “Boston,” and we are beginning to sense a theme here that the natives are also restless for classic rock, will come to market also in the second quarter. Knowing that IBM is trying to ride the wave for hyperconverged storage with the Power platform, there is a chance that a variant of this machine running Linux will also sport the recently ported Nutanix Extreme Computing Platform. Rounding out the midrange will be a four-socket Power9 machine, code-named “Zeppelin,” that will be released in the third quarter of this year. And finally, also in the fourth quarter and presumably sometime towards the end of this period but at the moment planned for the third quarter, too, is the “Fleetwood” high end NUMA machines, which scale from four sockets to sixteen sockets in a single system image.
This rollout of Power9 iron is consistent with the way the Power7 chip back in 2010 was gradually introduced to the market, and it is also more or less in phase with how the Power8 came out.
What is not clear yet is how the Power9 machines – and particularly those running IBM i – will be distinct from the prior generation of Power8 iron. We have not been able to confirm if IBM is going to have an entry line of machines that run IBM i with only one or only four cores activated on the system. We think IBM can’t forget that the vast majority of the IBM i base has only one or two cores, not sockets, and doesn’t need more than 10,000 CPWs of performance. So hopefully, there is a variant of the ZZ system that is geared down enough to be relevant for IBM i shops but also different enough that they will want to buy it. Or, if not, hopefully there will be enough Power8 machines in the Power S812 or Power S814 class still in the market – and at a discounted price – to provide an upgrade path for customers. It is hard to say what Big Blue will do here. It doesn’t want to admit that so many customers have such modest needs, but perhaps the answer is to give the cores in entry Power8 and Power9 machines enough auxiliary work to soak up the extra capacity.
We shall see.
We still have no idea what IBM plans to charge for these machines, but as we pointed out last November, there is a deal on the books that promises that “they buy Power8 now and get, depending on configuration, up to Power9 price/performance.” The deal, which we talked about here, offered free Power8 core activations on specific Power8 machines: the single socket Power S812 and Power S814 and the two socket Power S822 and Power S824. It was, quite honestly, hard to figure what that price/performance is given the fact that it really depended a lot on which configuration customers bought and what software tier they ended up with. But it sure didn’t look like a 30 percent price/performance increase at an annualized rate like we saw with the platform back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Our best guess is prices will hold about the same on CPUs, memory will be about the same, flash and disk will come down, and software will stay the same. We would like to see something more dramatic, like twice the capacity for half the price, which we think would get the customer base moving like the mid-1990s transition from CISC to RISC processors. But we are not holding our breaths on this one.