IBM Pushes the Edge with Power Systems, Again

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  May 12, 2015

I’m in Las Vegas this week at the IBM Edge conference which aims to offer the customers and partners, as well as a few analysts, insights into the company’s hardware-focused solutions and strategies. In addition, the event offered IBM a chance to roll out its recently reorganized Systems Group which, in addition to IBM servers, storage and networking hardware, now also includes the company’s WebSphere middleware assets, Tivoli system management solutions and operating system/virtualization technologies.

That may seem like an obvious association and is certainly one that IBM customers have made for years, but until recently, all of the company’s software solutions and related services resided in the IBM Software Group, one of its largest business units (BUs). In essence, the company made a conscious effort to practically realign all of its BUs so that software technologies and solutions resided within the most appropriate IBM product groups.

This may seem like the “musical chairs” style of reorganization that is common at all too many companies but that isn’t the case here. Instead, the move demonstrates a conscious effort by IBM to get its house in order to fully and reliably support its tens of thousands of existing enterprise customers while pursuing a raft of emerging business opportunities.

Powering cloud

Those new opportunities largely fall into four areas; mobile, social, big data/analytics and cloud computing, but cloud is the clear focal point at IBM Edge. In particular, IBM highlighted three new Power Systems solutions designed for hybrid cloud implementations:

  • IBM Power System E850 – The first 4-socket Power System offers flexible capacity and up to 70 percent guaranteed utilization. In IBM’s view, the E850 is an ideal solution for cloud service providers or medium to large enterprises looking to securely and efficiently deploy multi-tenancy workloads. The new solution can also speed access to larger in-memory databases (with up to 4TB of installed memory), allowing customers to optimize performance for the peaks and valleys of business needs.
  • IBM Power System E880 – The E880 can scale up to192 cores (sixteen POWER8 processors), and IBM testing shows that critical, data-intensive business workloads like IBM DB2 with BLU Acceleration exhibit linear scaling all in line with this enlarged capacity. As a result, the E880 can support hybrid cloud deployments with reduced loss of efficiency when scaling at this level — a capability that the company said does not exist on commodity x86-based hardware.
  • IBM PurePower System – The new PurePower System is a converged infrastructure solution that supports quick-to-deploy compute, networking and storage with advanced security capabilities, making it a solid solution for delivering secure insights in the cloud. IBM claims that PurePower offers ROI with up to 12X greater workload density than select competitors and utilizes a virtualization hypervisor with zero documented vulnerabilities, making the solution attractive to security-conscious managers and organizations.

Beyond these most recent announcements, Power Systems has enjoyed a raft of recent positive news and progress. Last week, the company unveiled two new POWER8-based solutions for SAP HANA, the first non-x86-based systems to achieve SAP certification. There has also been continuing growth and progress in the Open Power Foundation where now over 110 members are building solutions with IBM’s open source POWER microarchitecture. Finally, a new POWER8-based commercial IBM Watson solution is 28x smaller and 42x faster than the Watson system that won the Jeopardy! game show in 2011.

Final analysis

The concept of cloud computing is large enough to contain numerous technologies, but the stumbling or outright failure of various chip architectures means that today’s cloud customers  largely choose between two silicon vendors: Intel whose x86 Xeon CPUs lead the market in terms of volume sales, and IBM which (after the sale of its System x business to Lenovo last year) has redoubled efforts around its homegrown POWER and z System mainframe technologies.

So which architecture should cloud-bound businesses pick? That depends on a number of issues, but from I’ve seen this week at Edge, IBM is ensuring that customers understand that they have innovative choices. The new Power System E850 qualifies as a solid hybrid cloud “building block” that should be of value to the service provider and enterprise customers it was designed for. Of particular interest is IBM’s guarantee of 70% system utilization, a difficult performance metric to hit in the best of times with x86 and a near impossibility for some vendors. Plus, the ability to support 4TB of memory should make the E850 attractive for common in-memory database efforts.

The Power System E880 is an absolute computing beast of a very different color given its ability to scale to 16 processors and 196 cores (each of which can support up to 8 compute threads, 4X more per core than Intel Xeon). In other words, along with being an ideal platform for enterprises leveraging IBM’s DB2 with BLU Acceleration analytics solution (with performance scaling in parallel with system capacity), the E880 offers service providers an intriguing option for cost-effectively supporting highly scalable hybrid cloud-based analytics and other services.

Finally, the PurePower System proves that IBM can play effectively in converged infrastructure markets. The new solution’s notable workload density should make it an effective alternate to commodity-based solutions. But IBM’s vulnerability-resistant PowerVM hypervisor will be an attractant and selling point for businesses concerned about the security of hybrid cloud environments and services.

There were other significant announcements at IBM Edge beyond Power Systems, such as new and enhanced storage solutions, including offerings for hybrid cloud, a data access service for mobile app developers built on IBM’s z System mainframe and Bluemix and numerous major customer wins for IBM Watson and IBM Cloud. But IBM Edge was designed to highlight an essential theme; that one of IT’s longest lived traditional vendors is continuously reinventing itself to benefit its customers and to effectively pursue and win new business.

Is that a fair depiction? Yes, though with some caveats. IBM’s most recent reinvention followed the sale of its System x organization to Lenovo, a deal that concerned some observers due to the continuing growth in sales of Intel-based systems. Consider also that while IBM Power Systems is the overwhelming sales leader in RISC-based systems, that market continues to lose ground to commodity servers and IBM has suffered along with its competitors. The company’s most recent quarterly results included welcome positive news for Power Systems but analysts and other observers will be watching to see whether IBM can keep that sales momentum going.

IBM’s E850, E880 and PurePower solutions are all solid additions to the company’s already strong Power Systems portfolio, and worthy of the attention of cloud-focused enterprise and service provider customers. That should translate into good financial news in the short term but it also underscores how strongly the reorganized Systems Group is positioned to help deliver substantial benefits to IBM and its customers for a long time to come.

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