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IBM's Power charge continues

IBM's lineup of servers built around its Power microprocessor continue to be one of the standouts among the systems that it sells.

IBM's industry analyst meeting last week in Austin, Texas, covered the present and the future of its Power line. This is the system lineup once called the RS/6000 and pSeries into which was more recently folded the iSeries (previously AS/400, System 36, etc.) to form a new family called IBM Power Systems.

For our purposes here I am going to focus on Power in the guise of IBM's RISC-based lineup running a combination of AIX (IBM's flavor of commercial Unix) and Linux (either natively or using PowerVM Lx86 to run x86 Linux applications). IBM i, the successor to OS/400, also runs on the unified Power line.

IBM is slated to publicly unveil some of the details of Power7 , the next generation in the Power microprocessor lineup, at the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University on Tuesday. At the top-level, IBM describes Power7 as having eight cores per chip, four threads per core using simultaneous multithreading (SMT), and two to three times the per-chip performance of Power6 using the same amount of power.

Specifics of the systems based on Power7 will come later. IBM did say it'll build Power7 systems that generally add the required memory, bandwidth, networking, and so forth to keep the systems balanced.

Beyond future hardware, though, there were a few themes from this meeting worth highlighting.

IBM's Unix business is a smooth running machine at this point. We repeatedly saw a chart detailing IBM Unix Server revenue share gains at the expense of HP and Sun. The three companies held roughly equal share at the start of 2005; today IBM holds about 37 percent of the total market, about 10 percent more than those competitors.

One can always argue about which particular slicing and dicing of data most accurately represents the state of the market--of course, each vendor chooses the view that paints it in the best light--but it's hard to argue against the idea that IBM Power is on a nice upward trajectory.

Part of this is IBM's processor road map. One of the corollaries of Moore's Law is that time to market is performance. What would be a truly compelling processor in Year X is much less so in Year X+1 and even less so in Year X+2. And IBM Power development has been on a solid three-year cadence for major releases combined with interim speed bumps. Competitively, Sun's "Rock" has been reportedly canceled and Intel's next major iteration of Itanium, "Tukwila," has been much delayed.

However, it's also a case that IBM has simply made advancing Power Systems a real priority and has systematically put the resources in place to make that happen. I'm inclined to argue that this focus on scale-up, mission-critical, and integrated stacks that have helped lead to Power's success and the mainframe's renaissance have worked against IBM is the less differentiated segments of the x86 business. (IBM does bring many of the same concepts and even technologies to x86 with its higher-end eXA products.) Be that as it may, when it comes to Power Systems, IBM's understanding of the needs of large enterprise data centers for their core applications has paid off.

Some of this may seem unremarkable. It is IBM we're talking about here after all. However, the idea of a Unix server as an integrated stack or solution is actually a relatively new one in historical terms. Before x86 servers became so ubiquitous it was the Unix server that epitomized the roll-your-own style of computing. And Sun, until quite latterly, painted lack of any forced software (much less services) integration as a virtue.

Thus, while Power Systems are certainly still widely used in high-performance computing where the ethos still tends toward more home-grown customization and integration, Power Systems have generally evolved from a traditional Unix server mindset to one more familiar to mainframe buyers and operators. This isn't to say that Power Systems slavishly imitates all the approaches that its System z mainframe brethren take. After all, if a buyer wants a mainframe, IBM already makes one; no need to re-create a second version.

But concepts such as the benefits of owning many levels of the hardware and software stack are twined throughout Power Systems presentations--and this is very much a mainframe characteristic.

Perhaps this shines through most closely with virtualization, which is a central theme to Power Systems discussion.

  • Power servers are virtualized. That doesn't mean that they have an embedded hypervisor that can be booted up or that they're factory-loaded with virtualization in some way. Rather, even if you choose to run just one copy of an operating system, you're running it virtualized. IBM's 6 million transactions per minute on the TPC-C benchmark was on a virtualized system. Virtualization is inherent in the processor and firmware in addition to the IBM management software that sits on top.
  • Power Systems users make use of virtualization. As measured by the sales of PowerVM--IBM's suite to deploy, manage, and utilize multiple VMs on a server--about 66 percent of Power customers use or at least plan to use the features of virtualization at some level. (PowerVM comes in several editions; more money gets you more features.) Contrast this with x86 where, for all the legitimate interest in and excitement about virtualization, the penetration with new servers is still something in the 15 percent or so range.
  • The largest Power servers are huge. With rare exceptions and bragging-rights benchmarks notwithstanding, big servers these days aren't about running one workload or even about running one operating instance. It's about running many, many workloads with the appropriate combination of workload management techniques to enforce separation, provide flexibility, and offer mechanisms to guard against failures of various kinds. Virtualization (in several forms) is the foundation for all of this.

It wasn't that long ago, even by the standards of the computer industry, the IBM's RISC/Unix lineup was in danger of becoming a sideline. IBM dabbled in Unix "unification" efforts and with Intel's Itanium processor, and invested heavily in work associated with scaling up Linux. These efforts often seemed aimed at marginalizing its own RISC/Unix processor and operating system development work over the long term. However, in 2001, IBM released Power4. It was a major step forward in processor performance, and had two CPUs per processor die--then an unusual feature. Around the same time, IBM also doubled down on the development of its AIX flavor of Unix.

The result of those decisions, combined with consistent execution, is a very good one for IBM.