IBM Power Systems – Balancing Technical Advancement and Mainstream Business Value

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 21, 2018

Next generation silicon and servers typically represent an apogee for data center-focused vendors. After months or years of development and tens of millions of dollars in investment, new systems make a clear statement about a vendor’s essential capabilities and its ability to push the limits of technical innovation.

Given the sheer cost of such endeavors, it’s no surprise that initial systems are aimed at customers whose need for leading edge performance outweighs normal budgetary concerns. But what happens after that first rush of topline, high-margin sales begins to slow? How do vendors translate and deliver the value of their new solutions to mainstream customers?

Some of those organizations are likely to put new systems through their paces, but others’ computing requirements are decidedly middle of the road or even pedestrian. IBM’s rollout of its newest scale-out Power Systems solutions offers an interesting window into these subjects and is particularly intriguing given the company’s focus on its own POWER9 silicon and other system technologies.

What’s new in POWER9 solutions

First, what upgrades and new features do the new Power Systems boast? Generally speaking, the new solutions offer about 1.5X better overall performance than previous generation POWER8-based servers. Much of that boost is due to the POWER9 SO (scale-out) chips IBM announced in December that drive the new 2-socket and 4-socket configurations.

The new systems support industry DIMMs to enhance the servers’ cost competitiveness (.vs x86-based alternatives), but they do not disappoint on capacity. In fact, the new Power Systems support 2X to 4X more memory than previous POWER8-based servers, and also offer considerably better bandwidth features than past gen solutions. Those include up to 4X increased CPU fabric bandwidth to maximize scalability, increased I/O bandwidth via PCIe GEN4 slots (and a future expansion drawer), 25Gb ports for GPU or OpenCAPI acceleration technologies and integrated support for NVMe Flash devices.

Despite these significant upgrades, the new solutions’ power requirements and form factors are in keeping with past gen Power System solutions. Plus, IBM is utilizing single chip module (SCM—as opposed to dual chip module, or DCM) packaging for all 2- and 4-socket systems. That will reduce software licensing issues common in DCM designs and also lower latency for simpler CPU-to-CPU transfers.

IBM’s new cloud-enabled Power System solutions

The new Power Systems solutions come in four upgradable models:

  • S914 – an entry level single socket 4U system available in both rack and tower designs. Available with 4, 6 or 8 cores, 16 DIMM slots, 1TB of memory, 2 CAPI 2.0 slots and integrated IBM PowerVM virtualization. Operating systems include IBM AIX, IBM i and Linux.
  • S924 – an entry level dual socket 4U rack system. Available with 8, 10 or 12 cores, 32 DIMM slots, 4TB of memory, 4 CAPI 2.0 slots and integrated IBM PowerVM virtualization. Operating systems include IBM AIX, IBM i and Linux. IBM notes that the S924 offers considerably more memory capacity than comparable x86-based 2 socket systems.
  • S922 – an entry level 1- or 2-socket 2U rack system designed for high density deployments. Available with 4, 8 or 10 cores, 32 DIMM slots, 4TB of memory, 4 CAPI 2.0 slots and integrated IBM PowerVM virtualization. Operating systems include IBM AIX, IBM i and Linux. IBM notes that the S922 leads the industry in memory capacity compared to x86-based 2 socket systems.
  • L922 – an entry level 1- or 2-socket 2U rack system designed for high performance/security Linux-only deployments and applications. Available with 4, 8 or 10 cores, 32 DIMM slots, 4TB of memory, 4 CAPI 2.0 slots and integrated IBM PowerVM virtualization. Like the S922, the L922’s 4T of memory footprint leads the industry compared to x86-based 2 socket systems.

IBM emphasizes that all four of its new solutions are “cloud-enabled” in the sense of supporting highly flexible and powerful virtualization and management tools. Those mirror the ease of public cloud solutions and significantly simplify on-premises private cloud deployments, processes and maintenance. They can also be easily integrated with a range of services and solutions from IBM Cloud.

That’s all to the good, but the overall price/performance of the new offerings is also significantly better than past-gen POWER8-based servers and x86-based competitors. That underscores a prime strategic point for IBM – continuing to develop solutions that keep existing customers happy and faithful while also expanding the value that Power Systems solutions offer to prospective customers, especially owners of x86-based servers.

Mainstreaming innovation

Many of the features outlined above will enhance the value of system upgrades for IBM customers but it’s also worth considering where the new systems stand in terms of the POWER9-based AC922 Power Systems the company introduced in early December. Those solutions fully exploited the robust memory and fabric capabilities of POWER9 to optimally support artificial intelligence (AI) applications and associated machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL) processes.

These newest servers focus squarely on mainstream workloads, like the traditional database and SAP HANA-enabled applications used by thousands of IBM Power Systems customers running AIX, IBM i and Linux. Garnering better performance and lower costs (via software licensing changes) are critical points for those organizations, including smaller and medium-sized businesses.

Despite the wooing of competitors pedaling x86-based alternatives, those companies continue to buy, deploy and be fully satisfied with the ability of IBM Power to support and secure their business-critical applications and data. At the same time, many of those same customers are exploring ways to modernize and adapt their IT infrastructures and workloads.

Private, public and hybrid cloud are certainly part of that process. But so is adopting or preparing to use advanced analytics applications and tools, including various big data offerings. Their capacious memory and high-performance fabric options will make the new higher-end Power Systems S924, S922 and L922 ideal for mainstream customers exploring analytics options.

It should also be noted that the new POWER9 solutions are well adapted for the evolving needs of core IBM operating system constituencies, including users of the company’s homegrown AIX and IBM i, as well as those dedicated to Linux. The needs of these clients are particularly important to IBM given the years or even decades of past engagements the relationships represent, and the roles they play in the continuing health of IBM’s OS efforts and investments. Satisfying those customers is also crucially important to the members of IBM’s channel community that build value-added services on Power Systems.

Final analysis

As I suggested earlier, new generation silicon and systems offer a wide variety of innovation bragging rights. Those include latest/greatest speeds and feeds and other significant achievements. But while those advancements may grab the public’s attention and media spotlight, how vendors adapt and deliver those innovations to mainstream customers is more strategically important and commercially impactful.

The new POWER9-based Power Systems S914, S924, S922 and L922 all demonstrate that IBM clearly understands the importance and practical value of that process. The new solutions offer immediate, significant performance benefits for existing and legacy applications. Plus, they pave the way for customers exploring or adopting transformative analytics applications and other modern solutions.

Overall, these new solutions find IBM doing what it does better than the vast majority of its competitors and continuing the chain of innovation evident in eight previous generations of POWER silicon and Power Systems.

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