IBM partners see POWER8 servers as real threat to x86 universe


The new IBM POWER8 processor

By Mark Cox

IBM has begun shipping its new generation of POWER8 Power Systems servers which they announced in April, and with improvements from the previous generation which IBM partners think will pose a real challenge to the x86 universe.

When it was announced, the big news about POWER8 was that IBM had opened it up, making its chip designs and motherboard specs available to all for license and open for development through the OpenPOWER Foundation.   IBM has continued to stress that theme, tying it to its longstanding support for Linux. Three out of four of the new Power Systems servers  now shipping can run various combinations of Linux, IBM AIX or IBM i operating systems. The fourth model, the Power S822L, runs Linux exclusively.

The openness of POWER8 is highly attractive to large vendors like Google and Nvidia in the OpenPOWER Foundation, but while POWER8 is a very big deal indeed to IBM’s committed channel partners, the major attraction is that compared to POWER7, POWER8 is phenomenally powerful and ideally suited for the world of Big Data.  IBM says its test results show it will execute most workloads two to three times as fast as POWER7, with Power Systems running BLU Acceleration on Power capable of analyzing data 82 times faster than a comparably configured x86-based system.

“IBM has done this before, with an earlier OpenPOWER initiative about ten years ago, so there is an element of ‘we have done this before’ to promote the openness of the platform as a major feature,” said Greg Lefelar, SVP Sales, at Jeskell, a DC-area based IBM Premier Business Partner with a strong presence in the federal government space. “The huge difference this time is where the market has gone. Google, instead of buying servers from server manufacturers, went all in on open standards and have driven this where you would never believe. To get a big company like Google to be an OpenPOWER participant, IBM sees that as an enabler for them. We think that’s a potential influencer for others.”

Dave Lasseter, Vice President of Power System Sales at Tallahassee FLA-based IBM partner Mainline Information Systems, thinks that Power8 becoming open hardware will stimulate partner business indirectly.

“It’s extremely important for a couple things,” he said. “It seeds the ecosystem of the power technology. “On a price-performance curve, you have to have volume to make the chips affordable. When IBM announced Power chip sets in the early days, car companies, and makers of game systems used it then, and it created volume. Today, the Open Power Foundation may be developing their own boards, but ISVs will also look at it. It will help us because it will let us interface with customers with more applications and workloads that we can deliver.”

Lefelar said the direct benefits to partners from the openness will be more limited.

“It’s not the openness that is the big thing here – it’s the power,” he said. “Everybody gets excited at Linux, but it’s like other Unix systems and there is already so much Linux in the federal marketplace today. New markets aren’t opened by the openness of the platform, and more Linux won’t create new markets. But customers gather so much data and process so little of it, in the single digit percentages. Architectures and any improvements you can put into place will improve the quality of the analysis, and  can be real game changers, not because it’s more open but because it’s better.”

Lefelar said that the POWER8 hardware costs offer so much performance per socket, that they are almost incidental.

“We were really blown away with how much you can get for so little,” he said. “We believe that with POWER8 from a hardware standpoint, they are at parity or better with the two socket Intel market. Add on the reliability and you have a real winner.”

Lasseter said that while customers these days aren’t that interested in the POWER8’s feeds and speeds, they are interested in the benefits they provide.

“They can consolidate more workloads and consolidate on server sprawl,” he said. “They can overcome power and heating and cooling problems. They can take out older UNIX based servers and consolidate down, and run them at 60% or higher utilization. The fact that it has the equivalent of a V8 engine instead of a V6 is irrelevant. What is relevant is that customers want more efficiency and to avoid buying 10 more servers every month just to support the work.”

Customer reaction so far has been very strong, Lasseter added.

“It has been very well received,” he said. “The new types of workload that can be brought in, whether traditional Linux applications, or consolidating workloads off of Intel, provide new opportunities for the taking.”

Lasseter thinks that open source hardware will inevitably have the same impact as open source software.

“It’s already there,” he said. “Customers want to go open source because of the lower cost, which is much lower than Windows or VMware, and you don’t even pay for the support unless you need it.”

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