Monday, March 30, 2015

INTERCONNECT 2015 –Power8 is primed for success!

By Rich Ptak and Bill Moran

In April of 2014, IBM announced its first Power8 systems, at the same time they launched the Open Power Foundation. IBM was bringing to hardware the same open source model that had proven so successful for Linux software. The Open Source concept profoundly impacted the software industry benefiting both users and vendors. The plan was to repeat that success with a complete system. 

IBM’s Interconnect 2015 conference[1] ended recently. It included an abundance of customer stories and product announcements centered on Power8 and the Open Power architecture making this a good time to examine the systems status. We consider factors contribute\ing to Power8’s success as well as hurdles to overcome. 

We begin admitting our bias favors Power8 success, because we think monopolies distort markets. With AMD no longer a major force, Intel dominates x86-based server and PC markets. The result is stifled chip development, slowed emergence of alternative technologies, limited vendor options and reduced customer choice. Competition at the server level (HP, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) masks Intel’s monopoly of microprocessor architectures without addressing the underlying problems. 

A look back at the process by which 64 bit addressing became available to x86 customers illustrates the problem[2]. Intel originally planned to only offer 64 bit capability in a new  IA-64 line of processors; requiring customers to migrate to a new architecture. Only after AMD demonstrated that 64 bit could be added to x86 (with no migration required) did Intel follow suit.

Thus, AMD provided a choice customers otherwise would not have had. Competition drives change, innovation and dynamism in the marketplace. However, it isn’t clear how much the current non-competitive state influences server purchases[3]. Buyer specific needs probably influencer their decisions far more. Server level competition tends to conceal the level of control Intel exerts in the market. 

That said; let’s look at some key strengths and benefits Power8 brings to users and vendors:
  1. 1.     Designed for the era of Big Data, it leverages advanced technologies to enhance its ability to store, access and manipulate large amounts of data quickly and easily.
  2. 2.     Delivers enhanced support for Hadoop to better manage structured and unstructured data.
  3. 3.     Increases availability of role-based Power8-based cloud implementations, e.g. IBM’s Developer Cloud, multiple Power8 platform configurations (including bare metal) from IBM SoftLayer, etc.
  4. 4.     IBM is making the Open Power chip and firmware completely available to the public – allowing vendors, countries, individuals, etc. to redesign the chip and its firmware to meet their needs.
  5. 5.     The OpenPOWER Foundation as an open collaboration of industry users, vendors, research institutions and academia in support of Open Power is a particularly brilliant strategy.
Making the Open Power architecture available to all provides a huge market boost to Power. In particular, making the firmware publicly available means that global vendors can (and are) using the architecture without worrying about the existence of built-in backdoors. The rapid growth of the OpenPOWER Foundation to over 100 members demonstrates other companies recognize the business opportunities. OpenPOWER contributes to a surge in Power8 interest that will likely continue. 

Power8 offers a significant performance advantage over Intel servers in certain types of server consolidation. Using Power8 with CAPI, Redis Labs achieved a significant reduction[4] in required servers switching from x86. The application’s use of an in-memory database means it gains optimum advantage of Power8’s large memory and enhanced analytics. Nevertheless, the potential benefit in large data center environments appears to be substantial, even at lower ratios. There exists a clear potential for cost reductions in software licenses and such environmental items as power, floor space, and administrator time.  Thus, Power8 is likely to yield even more significant cost advantages.

Still there are challenges that Power8 must overcome in the marketplace. Perhaps the biggest is inertia. Many customers have been reflexively buying Intel x86 servers for years and may be reluctant to change. The latest IDC survey[5] reports that the non-x86 share of the server market is shrinking; even as many seem unaware that an alternative exists. The drawbacks of a non-competitive environment (higher prices, delayed innovation) have not manifested themselves in severely felt ‘pains’ limiting interest in searching for alternative suppliers. Although, there are some indications this is starting to change.

Further, some important applications do not run on Power8 Linux. For example, the popular Oracle and SQLServer databases are not available for Power8 Linux[6]. Generally, customers are reluctant to move workloads if it includes changing databases. Some work-arounds do exist, e.g. keeping the database, but using an intervening service to access that data. However, customers may be reluctant to add a service layer or may lack the in-house skills or confidence to change databases. 

Linux (on Intel) is a growing market even as Windows Server growth stagnates.  Windows Server users find Linux on Intel to be a better environment, but it has x86 limitations. Those customers are prime candidates for Power8 Linux as Linux on Intel and Linux on Power8 are near 100% compatible. While Windows Server is not a supported operating system on Power8; customers can be motivated to leave Windows. Motivation can be improved with attractive pricing, new tools that facilitate the move, greatly enhanced capabilities and features. 

Doug Balog, IBM General Manager of Power8, is convinced 2015 will be the key year for Power8. We think that he is right. There exists a very good chance that Power8 Systems from IBM and other OpenPOWER vendors will achieve a breakthrough. Customers who value competition ought to investigate Power8 to see where  it might fit into their plans and significantly benefit their applications. 

[1] Key sessions are available for replay.
[3] This is a concern for many IT staff we’ve spoken with.
[4] Yiftach Shoolman, CTO and Co-Founder of Redis described the reduction which demonstrates the value of Power8 + CAPI technology. CAPI allows flash memory to directly attach to the processor. The Power8 system here had 40TB of flash memory attached. See
[6] Oracle is supported on AIX.