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05 April 2010  
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POWER: the next generation

IBM’s latest POWER processor boasts of four times as many cores as its predecessor and beats Tukwila hands down on performance. Will that be enough to get CIOs to switch en masse? By Prashant L. Rao

Ever since it launched the POWER4 processor, IBM has seen its fortunes in the Unix server market on the upswing. As it launches the POWER7, the company has just come off a year where it fought off a determined challenge from HP to end the year as the leader of the Indian Unix server market. This time around, the company has built on the strengths of the POWER6 chip boosting the number of cores, improving energy efficiency and coming out with a processor that can take on all comers. Will that be enough to decimate the competition? Read on and find out.

More cores, faster too

Satya Sharma, CTO - Power Systems, said, “From a capacity standpoint, by packing eight cores on a chip rather than two before with each core being slightly faster, we are delivering a 5x improvement in performance from POWER6 to POWER7.” With POWER6, Big Blue’s Unix servers topped out at 64 cores (32 processors x 2 cores). As the number of cores has gone up four times, it is talking about delivering a 256 core system (32 chips with 8 cores each) with POWER7 before the year is out. Right now, the company has announced the mid-range 4- and 8-way boxes (32 and 64 cores).

Easy migration

Existing POWER6 customers can take a workload from a POWER6 server to a new POWER7 box using a feature called Live LPAR Mobility while transactions continue to run. Users aren’t affected and they don’t even realize that a migration has occurred. “We can take an entire application environment including the OS and move it from POWER6 to POWER7,” commented Sharma.

In terms of OS know-how, IT administrators can rest assured that existing versions of AIX, 5.3 and 6.1, are both supported on POWER7. This does away with the need to recertify the software stack.

Some systems, the high-end ones in the 595 class, will be field upgradable. With regard to the rest of the Power Systems family, IBM is talking up financial instruments (asset leasing) through IBM Global Financing (IGF). “The assets are owned by IGF. Customers just have to pay the leasing rentals,” said Rahul Bindal, Country Manager-Power Systems, Systems and Technology Group, IBM India/SA.

How POWER became a processor to reckon with
“IBM invented RISC in the 1980s. We did not capitalize on it. Sun did. It's a matter of pride that we have staged a comeback in an architecture that we invented,” said Sharma, IBM.

He added that Sun was so dominant in 1999 that customers would not have considered switching unless they saw a 2-3x advantage. No one switches for a 15% advantage. “Ever since POWER4 came out in 2001 we have demonstrated a 3-4x advantage compared to both HP and SPARC,” concluded Sharma.

What’s new

With the POWER7 processor, in cases where servers are being under-utilized, the processor frequency can be dropped by as much as 50% resulting in energy savings of 80-90%.

Memory capacity, Sharma felt, was a big challenge as the memory footprint kept going up, partly because of virtualization and also on account of enterprise applications that require a lot of physical memory. “We implemented a feature in POWER7 called active memory expansion so that we can make a 32 GB system look like a 48 GB system or even a 64 GB system to middleware and applications. SAP believes that there is more memory in the system than is physically present. We adopted the hot page/cold page concept and pages that are not accessed frequently get compressed,” he added.

What CIOs say
Talking to CIOs who have been on the Power Systems platform for a while now it was clear that they were happy with the reliability and scalability of these systems. That being said, while they were planning to stick with POWER, the deployment of systems incorporating the new processor would proceed as per their existing schedule determined by application roll outs or server refresh cycle rather than the launch of a new processor.

Chandan Sinha, CIO, GHCL Ltd, said, “We have been using Power Systems for 12 years now. The performance has been very good. Many of our facilities are at remote locations. We can't do testing [of alternatives]. IBM machines have stood up to the harsh environment of our chemical factory. Our next server refresh will be in three years.”

Anil Khopkar, CIO, Bajaj Auto, said, “We are planning to deploy POWER7 this year.”

He added, “Back in 2000-01, we decided that our business applications would be supported 24x7 by SAP. Our plants work at different times (one is in Indonesia) and we required a robust, proven platform with a high degree of performance from all aspects—CPU, storage and OS. We found p Series to have a high degree of resilience and the MTBF is high.”

Bajaj Auto was earlier on the Compaq Alpha platform. “When HP acquired Compaq we were unsure about the future of Alpha and hence we migrated to p Series,” said Khopkar.

Commenting on the organization’s server refresh schedule, he said, “We review our IT infrastructure every third year. IBM also happens to refresh its Power line-up every three years. Since 2001 we have conducted two evaluations. We have found that IBM offers better performance for a lower price every time.”

In the case of LGEIL, the company is rolling out a global single instance of Oracle E-Business Suite at the end of Q3 or during Q4 2010. “Depending on that, in six to nine months, we would be rolling out POWER7,” said Daya Prakash Head - IT, LG Electronics India.

Back in 2003, LG India was on the Sun platform running a home-grown ERP system called Millennium. As the company moved to standardize on the Oracle E-Business Suite it evaluated both Sun and IBM hardware. The Oracle deployment at the headquarters had been done entirely on IBM hardware and so from the standpoint of compatibility, LG India also decided to go in for IBM.

“The scalability aspect was better on IBM systems. After moving, we were able to scale up our operations and infrastructure without a show stopper,” said Prakash.

As far as POWER7 goes, he commented, “The Simultaneous Multi Threading performance has been enhanced. This will help bring down the energy consumption and help the cause of Green IT.”

Against the competition

IBM introduces a new generation of POWER every three years. In this regard, it has successfully shipped on time with every release unlike Intel which has had problems aplenty with Itanium. “Sun has multiple architectures, they have CMT. Then they were working on Rock which was killed. They are using the Fujitsu M-Series line for more serious enterprise workloads. In POWER's case we can address a range of workloads—both thread performance workloads and throughput related cases—within a single design,” said Sharma.

When asked how POWER7 stacked up in comparison to Tukwila, Sharma had this to say. “First of all, Tukwila has 4 cores per die vs. 8 cores per die in POWER7. On a per core performance basis, if you take a look at any benchmark, POWER has had a substantial advantage over Itanium—a 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 core-to-core performance advantage. We expect that to continue.”

With POWER6 and its predecessor the largest configuration sported 64 cores. “However, using 64 cores we can beat HP's 256 core system. On a per core basis we have a 3-4 times advantage. It's actually a disadvantage to have all that hardware in the system burning energy, taking up space, software licenses and not delivering the goods,” said Sharma.

While Nehalem EX will come out shortly with 8 cores per processor enabling 64 core systems on the x86 platform, 2-way boxes tend to account for the maximum number of units shipped in the x86 world. “Scale out is more the model in the x86 world unlike Unix where scale up is our forte,” commented Sharma.

He stressed the point that x86 systems were becoming bigger but, when it came to system balance across compute, memory and SMP fabric bandwidth, he felt that IBM fared significantly better. “We have a strong heritage of SMP systems. Our systems scale in a linear fashion. It also shows up in virtualization which puts a lot of stress on memory bandwidth. Every time you schedule a virtual server on a core you have to reload the caches placing a lot of demand on the memory bandwidth. We think that we have a significant advantage when it comes to these kinds of resources. Lots of people can throw cores at the problem but we can produce systems that are highly balanced. We think that we will continue to deliver a level of differentiation not only from the processor point of view but also from the hypervisor, OS—the whole stack,” he concluded.

The Indian angle
Sharma said, “The team in Bangalore played a big role in POWER7 development. They have a huge lab here. Even in relation to the parent teams in the US, it is measurable and significant. They have participated in processor, firmware, system test and OS development. There is a made-in-India aspect to POWER7. The number of people, the type of projects they have participated in... If clients have issues from a deployment point of view they don't have to go to US to get knowledge or advice... they can tap into these resources.”

The India STG lab made contributions to POWER7 in terms of hardware design and verification of various components of the processor, platform bring-up, enabling soft functions through Power Firmware, AIX and Linux, hardware systems test and platform management. The Bangalore team made contributions to the overall processor design and validation. It also owned the implementation of total Random Logic Macros and some Custom Macros, optimizing them with respect to performance, power and area. The Exerciser team delivered tools which helped maintain quality throughout the development cycle. The characterization team helped in the system bring up, delivery of memory settings and processor characterization.

Likely impact

If it was just a case of comparing processor to processor, POWER7 would win hands down against Itanium. However, in the real world, it is going to be a comparison of system vs. system and here HP can always stuff twice as many processors into a server and offer it at a competitive price to roughly match a POWER7 system. This is indeed the strategy that HP has been following with its Superdomes all along. The only disadvantage of this approach (other than space, cooling etc.) comes if you are running Oracle software that is usually licensed per processor. In such cases, an Itanium system is at a disadvantage. That having been said, other software vendors tend to license on a per server or per seat basis whereupon it doesn’t really matter how many processors a server uses to deliver a particular level of performance.

POWER7 is unlikely to motivate HP users into jumping ship except, perhaps, for those running Oracle applications. CIOs tend to change their server platforms only if their existing platform is going to be phased out or for some equally compelling reason. Otherwise they tend to stick with what works.

For now, Intel is talking about a mix of Xeon and Itanium systems in the enterprise. The big question is how long Intel is willing to sustain Itanium. The fact that Itanium releases have slipped their delivery dates time and again is proof of the fact that Itanium is a second-class citizen among Intel’s products with Xeon being the first priority. I would reckon that Intel will continue with Itanium until that time that Xeon can compete head-to-head with RISC processors.

Talking to CIOs who have been with the Power Systems platform for a long time, it was clear that while they had no intention of switching from POWER to another Unix platform or x86-Linux for that matter, their upgrades to POWER7 would happen as per their server refresh schedule and that the launch of a new processor would not spur them into accelerating that process.

Sun's customers who are uncertain about the product roadmap after the Oracle acquisition might consider switching to POWER7 based servers but IBM will have to duke it out with HP which is aggressively targeting Sun's user base in India. Moreover, Sun managed to hold on to its market share in the Indian Unix server market last year. What POWER7 will do is ensure that CIOs who have chosen IBM have peace of mind that when they do get around to their next server refresh, they will have an option that will offer better performance at the same price that they paid the last time around. This could take anything from six months to three years depending on the date of the last refresh.



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