How serious are IBM's OpenPOWER efforts? It is a question we got a lot after publishing our reviews of the POWER8 and POWER8 servers. Despite the fact that IBM has launched several scale out servers, many people still do not see IBM as a challenger for Intel's midrange Xeon E5 business. Those doubts are understandable if you consider that Linux based systems are only 10% of IBM's Power systems sales. And some of those Linux based systems are high-end scale up servers. Although the available financial info gives us a very murky view, nobody doubts that the Linux based scale out servers are only a tiny part of IBM's revenue. Hence the doubts whether IBM is really serious about the much less profitable midrange server market.

At the same time, IBM's strongholds – mainframes, high-end servers and the associated lucrative software and consulting services – are in a slow but steady decline. Many years ago IBM put into motion plans to turn the ship around, by focusing on Cloud services (Softlayer& Bluemix), Watson (Cognitive applications, AI & Analytics) and ... OpenPOWER. If you pay close attention to what the company has been saying there is little doubt: these three initiatives will make or break IBM's future. And cloud services will be based upon scale out servers.

The story of Watson, the poster child of the new innovative IBM, is even more telling. Watson, probably the most advanced natural language processing software on the planet, started its career on typical IBM Big Iron: a cluster of 90 POWER 750 servers, containing 2880 Power7 CPUs and 16 TB of RAM. We were even surprised that this AI marvel was on the market for no more than 3 million dollars. The next generation for Watson cloud services will be (is?) based upon OpenPOWER hardware: a scale out dual POWER8 server with NVIDIA's K80 GPU accelerator as the basic building block. An OpenPOWER based Watson service is simply much cheaper and faster, even in IBM's own datacenters. But there is more to it than just IBM's internal affairs.

Google: "a simple config change"

Google seems to be quite enthusiastic about OpenPOWER. Google always experimented with different architectures, and told the world more than once that it was playing around with ARM and POWER based servers. However, the plans with OpenPOWER hardware are very tangible and require large investments: Google is actively developing a POWER9 server with Rackspace.

"Zaius, the OpenPOWER POWER9 server of Google and Rackspace"

Google has also publicly stated that "For most Googlers, enabling POWER is a config change". This far transcends the typical "we experimenting with that stuff in the labs".

So no wonder that IBM is giving this currently low revenue but very promising project such a high priority. And the pace increases: IBM just announced even more "OpenPOWER based" servers. The scale out server family is expanding quickly...

Recent Developments: OpenPOWER's Potential HPC Comeback
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  • loa - Monday, September 19, 2016 - link

    This article neglects one important aspect to costs:
    per-core licensed software.
    Those licenses can easily be north of 10 000$ . PER CORE. For some special purpose software the license cost can be over 100 000 $ / core. Yes, per core. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true.
    So if your 10-core IBM system has the same performance as a 14-core Intel system, and your license cost is 10 000$ / core, well, then you just saved yourself 40 000 $ by using the IBM processor.
    Even with lower license fee / core, the cost advantage can be significant, easily outweighing the additional electricity bill over the lifetime of the server.
  • aryonoco - Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - link

    Thanks Johan for another very interesting article.

    As I have said before, there is literally nothing on the web that compares with your work. You are one of a kind!

    Looking forward to POWER 9. Should be very interesting.
  • HellStew - Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - link

    Good article as usually. Thanks Johan.
    I'd still love to see some VM benchmarks!
  • cdimauro - Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - link

    I don't know how much value could have the performed tests, because they don't reflect what happens in the real world. In the real world you don't use an old o.s. version and an old compiler for an x86/x64 platform, only because the POWER platform has problems with the newer ones. And a company which spends so much money in setting up its systems, can also spend just a fraction and buy an Intel compiler to squeeze out the maximum performance.
    IMO you should perform the tests with the best environment(s) which is available for a specific platform.
  • JohanAnandtech - Sunday, September 25, 2016 - link

    I missed your reaction, but we discussed this is in the first part. Using Intel's compiler is good practice in HPC, but it is not common at all in the rest of the server market. And I do not see what an Intel compiler can do when you install mysql or run java based applications. Nobody is running recompiled databases or most other server software.
  • cdimauro - Sunday, October 2, 2016 - link

    Then why you haven't used the latest available distro (and compiler) for x86? It's the one which people usually use when installing a brand new system.
  • nils_ - Monday, September 26, 2016 - link

    This seems rather disappointing, and with regards to optmized Postgres and MariaDB, I think in that case one should also build these software packages optimized for Xeon Broadwell.
  • jesperfrimann - Thursday, September 29, 2016 - link

    Optimized for.. simply means that the software has been officially ported to POWER, and yes that would normally include that the specific accelerators that are inside the POWER architecture now are actually used by the software, and this usually means changing the code a bit.
    So .. to put it in other words .. just like it is with Intel x86 Xeons.

    // Jesper
  • alpha754293 - Monday, October 3, 2016 - link

    I look forward to your HPC benchmarks if/when they become available.

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