Why i Reason #87: Eschewing Performance for Its Own Sake
May 20, 2019 Alex Woodie
Make no mistake about it: IBM’s Power Systems server can flat out fly. The two biggest supercomputers on the planet right now – Summit and Sierra – are Power9 machines, although much of the computational oomph comes from Nvidia GPUs. But one thing that sets the IBM i server apart from its hardware compatriots is that it avoids the celebrity of performance.
Performance is “in” right now in the IT space (it never really went out of style). Industry standard server makers (i.e., those who make X86 servers) fight over who has the fastest systems. Public cloud platforms battle to deliver the lowest price-performance, while sucking in vast quantities of data. Consumers demand ever faster phones, notebooks, and PCs, with the fastest chips and biggest NAND storage chips. Everybody is looking forward to ultra-fast download speeds of 5G radios, and content producers are lining up to serve it to them.
But aside from a handful of the biggest customers in the most demanding industries, most IBM i shops couldn’t care less about which server maker is at the top of the benchmark this quarter. As long as the user experience isn’t bad, they find the IBM i server’s performance to be just fine. That’s because, in many cases, IBM i customers are basing their platform decisions (or at least their decision not to abandon the platform just yet) on other factors that they deem more important to them than raw performance figures.
For example, the IBM i platform’s low total cost of ownership, which stems from the historically low investment in personnel that customers have to make to keep these machines running, is a big factor in IBM i’s favor. The IBM midrange line has traditionally required just a handful of folks to run and maintain. And in many cases, you had a jack-of-all-trades (a programmer/analyst/operator) manning the box in the IT or IS department. While the advent of processor and storage virtualization – and especially VIOS – is chipping away at that bastion of IBM i simplicity, the server is still relatively easy to run compared to traditional Windows and Linux environments.
The IBM i server dances to its own beat, which is, arguably, one of the reasons why it been so successful over the years and attracted such a devoted following. Customers have been rewarded with a steady uptick in performance over the years, culminating in Power9, which is an extremely fast processor in its own right. In fact, the processor is so powerful that it’s overkill for many smaller shops, which could really make do with a fraction of the performance.
In a recent interview with IT Jungle, IT analyst Ron Enderle of the Enderle Group pointed out this lack of an overarching demand for needle-flattening performance in the IBM i installed base, and how that has impacted the platform’s long-term prospects, in ways both good and bad.
“You pick the right system for the right job,” Enderle said. “If you’re working on a farm, you’re probably buying something like a Jeep to get around on rather than a Bugatti. With a Bugatti you pay a lot more, and you get a lot of performance. But you’re not going to pull a plow with it. With a Jeep, you can pull a plow with it.”
Obviously, in Enderle’s comparison, the IBM i server is the Jeep, and the Bugatti is the latest Windows or Linux server equipped with Intel processors (Landcruiser enthusiasts, please bear with us). The IBM i folks know what workload they’re going to run on it – an accounting or a manufacturing package, say, or perhaps human resources. Those are the plows. The Intel folks, on the other hand, may point their Bugatti-like box at something where 1,500 horsepower can do some serious damage, like running cloud workloads, training a deep learning model on 10 PB of data, or running big SQL queries against databases with tens of billions of rows.
That’s not to say that companies aren’t using their Intel server to run regular run-of-the-mill business applications, like ERP, merchandise planning, or supply chain logistics programs. They can, and do. The big cloud vendors haven’t (yet) succeeded in sucking up all of the computer workloads that American businesses run on every day.
And herein lies the crux of the argument around the IBM i server’s eschewing of performance for its own sake: There are just other things more important than performance when it comes to running everyday business applications. Security and manageability are probably the two big ones.
The IBM i server has a security advantage for a range of different reasons. But one of them is the relative simplicity of the IBM i server’s approach in contrast to the approach taken by performance-obsessed X86 platform vendors. Yes, you can get more performance out of Intel servers, but the performance is wrapped up in a system with greater complexity, and that complexity can reduce the security of the overall system (or at least it requires more careful planning and more work to reach that secured state)
“Intel servers in this ecosystem, they change rapidly,” Enderle pointed out. “You have to cycle them out pretty quick. They try to do everything but the kitchen sink. So you get a lot of complexity, a lot of advancement, and a lot of hardware churn.”
By contrast, the IBM i server is a relatively slow-changing beast that can trace its roots back to the 1970s. That historical baggage (some would say “legacy”) is a disadvantage when you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of performance from the chip and the system. But it’s an advantage when you’re trying to run business applications in a secure, reliable, and predictable way.
Enderle said a lot of interesting stuff about the nature of “excitement” in today’s IT environment, which you can read here. Needless to say, not everybody was enthralled with Enderle’s characterization of the IBM i server as “boring,” even if he meant it as a compliment. Newer X86 technology is certainly exciting, but that’s not always a good thing.
“Now it’s all about the latest technology, the fastest stuff. Now we’re dealing with a lot of security, compatibility, and reliability problems as a result,” Enderle said. “They may not have the highest performing systems. But on the other hand, they don’t have systems that are keeping you up at night. It’s the difference between performance for its own sake and re-thinking about how you want your IT shops to run.”
In other words, if your Jeep is getting the job done with the plow, there isn’t much to gain by hooking it up to a Bugatti. (Although wouldn’t it be neat to see a trailer hitch on a $3-million Chiron?) In fact, there’s quite a bit to lose if you’re using the wrong tool for the job.
“If you’re running a manufacturing site where you don’t get a lot of change, this system – the IBM i server – is probably kind of ideal,” Enderle said. “If you’re running a trading floor where a couple of milliseconds of performance can mean millions of dollars off the bottom line, then you’ll probably have to chase performance, even though you want uptime as well, because downtime is even higher. But you’re much more interested in performance.”
Enderle applauds IBM on the one hand for continuing to build such fit-to-purpose machine when the rest of the industry has gone in a different direction. In fact, with the System z, IBM has two such machines, even if the price tag of the mainframe is closer to that of a Bugatti.
But Enderle also wonders why IBM hasn’t made more of a big deal about its strong business focus and heritage with IBM i. In the age of increasing IT complexity and ongoing security breaches, the notion of a simple-yet-secure system designed to run traditional business applications could actually be a trend-setting direction of its own.
“One of the reasons why it [the IBM i server] so reliable is people implement it in a way that allows that reliability to come forward,” Enderle says. “You put it in. It stays in place. You wrap it with services, but it doesn’t need a lot. It’s not a big income generator. It’s great for customer satisfaction, but it just isn’t as sparkly as a more traditional server.”
It’s possible for the IBM i server to see a resurgence in popularity. Hopefully the IBM marketing folks will see to it that it’s at least in the conversation. That will, of course, require spending money to raise awareness about IBM i, which is something that the company has thus far seemed unwilling to do in any kind of sustained manner.