Analytics Headlines Underscore SAP HANA

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  May 6, 2015

SAP’s Sapphire NOW conference typically sparks an avalanche of press releases related to the company’s HANA in-memory analytics technologies. That’s certainly the case this week, but a pair of related announcements have made Sapphire NOW 2015 significantly different.

1. IBM said that a successful client testing period in 2014 has resulted in two new POWER8-based Power Systems solutions for SAP Business Warehouse (v7.31 or higher) running on SAP HANA. The first, based on the Power Systems S824 with 24 POWER8 processor cores and up to 1TB of memory, is suited for databases of up to 512GB (compressed) in size. The second, based on the Power Systems E870 with 40 POWER8 cores and up to 2TB of memory, is designed for databases of up to 1TB (compressed) in size. IBM noted that SAP HANA is supported across all POWER8 servers but that the new solutions will combine flexible infrastructure components with rapid time-to-value.

2. Intel launched its new Xeon processor E7-8800/4800 v3 product families, which the company said are designed to deliver accelerated business insights through real-time analytics, as well as enhanced performance and reliability for mission-critical computing. Along with other improvements, the new processors support up to 1.5TB of memory per socket. Intel noted that Xeon E7-8800/4800 v3 solutions have set 20 new performance world records across a range of mission-critical applications, achieving a 40% average performance improvement over the prior generation. In addition, the chips deliver up to 6x performance improvement for in-memory transactional workloads. Vendors, including Bull, Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, Hitachi, HP, Huawei, Inspur, Lenovo, NEC, Oracle, PowerLeader, Quanta, SGI, Sugon, Supermicro and ZTE are all building systems based on the new processors, and Lenovo and HP announced new solutions based on Xeon E7-8800/4800 v3 that have been certified for SAP HANA.

Final analysis

It’s hardly a surprise that SAP HANA continues to make headlines more than half a decade after its launch. The reason for that is two-fold: 1) In that time, sophisticated analytics solutions have become increasingly important to both IT vendors and their business customers, and 2) SAP’s strategy has made HANA available to virtually any vendor of Intel-based systems, providing they follow the HANA reference architecture guidelines. The practical result is that SAP has done as much or more to “democratize” analytics as any other vendor, leading to an increasingly rich and competitive marketplace for HANA.

So how will IBM’s and Intel’s announcements impact the ecosystems and markets for SAP HANA and other analytics solutions? Let’s consider Intel, first.

The company’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v3 families have literally been designed for in-memory analytics. The processors can support configurations up to 32 sockets with up to 50% more memory per socket than previous generation Xeon chips. They also offer up to 18 cores, a 20% increase compared to the prior generation, and so support up to 36 threads per processor. Also notable is that Intel said that the new Xeon family can deliver up to 70% more decision support analytic sessions per hour that prior gen chips.

In other words, the new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v3 processors are extremely well-suited for SAP HANA. By bringing analytics to the forefront of its design process and developing a range of affordable products (the new chips are priced from $1,224 to $7,175 in quantities of 1,000), Intel clearly intends to drive the democratization of analytics inspired by SAP HANA ever further into the market, placing powerful analytics tools into the hands of more and more organizations and institutions.

What about IBM’s new POWER8-based solutions? There are a couple of reasons that Power Systems are particularly good for analytics workloads, including SAP HANA. The first is Power’s multi-threading capabilities – the ability to simultaneous process multiple compute threads which is so valuable in dealing with complex data/analytics. POWER8 can run eight threads on each of its 12 cores, or 96 threads per processor, or over 2x more per core more than the new Intel Xeon processors. IBM Power Systems also support robust memory capacity, a critical-point technology for memory-dependent solutions, like SAP HANA.

IBM’s first two HANA-specific Power solutions are appliance-like, in the sense of being configured specifically according to the compressed size of the HANA databases involved. As a result, these systems should address a significant number of HANA projects and, from a go-to-market standpoint, the solutions will likely appeal initially to IBM customers who can easily incorporate them into existing Power System environments and management processes. That doesn’t mean that other customers won’t be interested in the systems or that larger, more complex POWER8-based HANA solutions won’t be forthcoming from IBM.

In fact, given the continuing growth and traction of the OpenPower Foundation, it’s entirely possible that members of the group could eventually leverage POWER8 to develop HANA solutions of their own target markets. In essence, by bringing HANA into Power Systems (and vice versa), IBM has also introduced elements of technological choice into the HANA marketplace that didn’t really exist before. That should be interesting as various new HANA solutions are put through their paces, allowing clearer performance comparisons between Intel Xeon and IBM POWER8 silicon to be made.

But it should also benefit IBM for the very simple reason that Power will likely be the only alternative silicon to Intel Xeon for SAP HANA in the foreseeable future. The possibility of the only alternative RISC architecture (Oracle SPARC) supporting HANA is remote in the extreme. Intel’s Itanium solutions are winding down (HP is the only significant vendor remaining), and it seems unlikely that AMD Opteron will find a place in the HANA ecosystem.

So for now, IBM appears to be in a very good position to disrupt the existing SAP HANA market hierarchy and profit in the process. But at the same time, Intel’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v3 families guarantee that the competition will be anything but easy or one-sided. In the end, analytics customers will be the clearest winners, though SAP has to be pleased that its darling HANA is exciting the interest of so many worthy suitors.

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