IBM Reveals Power10 Rollout Plan, Begins Power11
November 23, 2020 Timothy Prickett Morgan
We have been following the development of the Power10 processor with great interest over the past few years, and have been trying to figure out precisely when – and how – Big Blue will put its future processor inside of Power Systems machines. At the Common Europe Online vCEC 2020 event last week, Steve Sibley, vice president and offering manager for the Cognitive Systems division at IBM, talked about IBM’s plan and put some rough dates on it.
When we talked to Sibley back in May, all he could tell us was that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic might cause some delays in the Power10 launch. And this summer at the virtual Hot Chips conference when the Power10 chip architecture was unveiled, Sibley said that there would indeed be a delay but that it was on the order of a few weeks, not months and that the Power10 chip would indeed ship at around that time in 2021. To which we presumed was going to be around September 2021, if history is any guide, and toward the end of September for that matter so IBM could have a little bit of a boost in the third quarter and a very good fourth quarter.
Sibley – and indeed anyone else in the Cognitive Systems division, which many of us still call Power Systems – never said what machines would come out in the second half of 2021. Normally, IBM starts at the bottom and works its way up the line to the high end, but with Power7 it started in the middle of the line and then worked down and then up. We didn’t know what the pattern would be for Power10. Under normal circumstances, with Intel and AMD both fielding new X86 processors in early 2021 aimed at entry machines – Intel’s “Ice Lake” Xeon SP chips and AMD’s “Milan” Epyc chips to be precise – you would think that IBM would be eager to get its SKUs for Power10 servers into the field.
But apparently not. At vCEC last week, Sibley said that the “large systems” using Power10 processors would not come out near the end of 2021, and that the “scale-out” machines, of which he actually named two of them, would come out sometime in the first half of 2022. From this, we presume that the Power E1080 machine will come out first, and quite possibly also the Power E1050. And in fact, we have heard through the grapevine that the division and distinction between the four-socket standalone node (the Power E750, E850, and Power E950) and the four-socket nodes that are augmented with NUMA pipes that are used to create the high-end NUMA machines (the Power E770 and Power E780, the Power E870 and Power E880, and the Power E980) is actually going away and that these machines will be converged down to one box that can do both jobs. This is similar to the way that IBM has converged down to a single Power E980 instead of creating a Power E970 server with half the features and different processor SKUs. IBM wants the simplest Power Systems lineup it can put into the field, which makes sense given that this is still a relatively low volume business.
The entry systems based on the Power9 processors were the first to come to market within that generation, and did so in February 2018 with the “ZZ” versions of the machines that supported the PowerVM hypervisor and therefore IBM i, AIX, and Linux. The Linux only scale-out machines, code-named “Boston,” followed in May 2018, and then the four-socket box that does not support IBM i (which is annoying to us), and then in August 2018 the midrange “Zeppelin” four-socket Power E950 and “Fleetwood” high-end Power E980 finished off the lineup.
The Power10 rollout is playing this in reverse, it looks like. Or rather, IBM is keeping the midrange Power E1050 node and the clusters built from it that comprise the high-end Power E1080 about where we expected it and leapfrogging the entry Power10 servers from where we expected them in early to middle 2021 over to early 2022 with a hedge in case the coronavirus pandemic has businesses moving slower than expected until the middle of 2022. That will be a four-year gap for entry machines, but only a three-year gap for the midrange and high-end systems. Four years is a long time between processor generations for one-socket and two-socket servers, regardless of architecture.
While Sibley did not explain these changes, they seem pretty obvious to us. We think that the small and midrange businesses that depend on entry Power Systems servers do not really need the raw performance that the Power10 has, and without a substantial HPC and AI business driving the adoption of these servers, IBM is not in any hurry to launch entry Power10 machines for its customers. Had IBM won some of the exascale supercomputer awards happening around the world, worth several billions of dollars in the next several years, we might be talking a different story, but even still, when this happened with the pre-exascale “Summit” and “Sierra” systems built by IBM for the U.S. Department of Energy, the Power AC922 system was a custom box all of its own when it launched in December 2017 and it didn’t really sell in the kinds of volumes that IBM had hoped. There are a number of clusters based on the Power AC922 out there in the world, and this “Witherspoon” machine is an excellently designed platform with all kinds of capaciousness that doesn’t come in an X86 box. But it also ain’t cheap.
Sibley did want to reassure the COMMON Europe faithful, and therefore the rest of us because this has become a global event, about the long-term prospects of the Power processor and Power Systems server line.
“We are already starting to architect and look at the key requirements to plot where were are going with Powernext, which odds are will be called Power11 and which will come later in the decade,” explained Sibley. “The same three- to four-year cycle that we have been at with processors in general.”
Based on the cycle so far, four years is more normal for the big jumps, as you can see from the roadmap above, although there was a Power7+ process shrink to 32 nanometers that is not being shown that really makes the cycle 1-3-3-4 and we presume from this series, echoing an SAT exam, the next number will be 4. So, that’s 2025 for Power11, and that might mean the entry servers get it first and we revert to the entry followed by midrange/high-end pattern we are used to. But who knows? A lot can change in five years in the IT sector. No matter what, if Power11 comes out in 2025, the product line could be maintained with existing processing capacity for about another five years, reaching the 2030 promise Big Blue has made to offer support for IBM i.
That’s about as good as it gets. You won’t get any better guarantee from any other platform.