Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Big Blue Wants Your Big Linux Apps On Power 

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Hot on the heels of its $1 billion investment to foster the porting of applications, modern systems software, and development tools to Linux running on its Power processors, IBM is getting ready to make a big change in the pricing of its high-end Power Systems machines to make them more economically competitive with X86 alternatives.

This could be a boon for companies looking for a large NUMA box to run big databases or perform analytics work – particularly if they need a machine that scales processing and memory further than standard four-socket and more rare eight-socket Xeon machines.

The catch is that the price cuts are only going to be offered for big Power Systems machines running Linux.

Doug Balog, who was named general manager of IBM’s Power Systems division back in July after running its System z mainframe business for a little more than a year, tipped off EnterpriseTech to the impending announcement, and said that IBM hoped to replicate the success it had with Linux on the mainframe with its high-end Power Systems.

Back in 2001, when IBM committed its first $1 billion in investments in Linux, it did so across its software lines and its server divisions so that Linux became a peer to its OS/390 (now z/OS) operating system for mainframes, its OS/400 (now IBM i) operating system for proprietary midrange systems, and its AIX variant of Unix. IBM i, AIX, and Linux are all supported on Power Systems, and have been for a long time, but Linux represents only a “single digit” portion of overall Power Systems sales. IBM wants to change that, and it is willing to cut prices on big Power Systems machines when they run Linux to see if it can boost sales by giving customers a fat NUMA server option to a cluster of individual machines.

This may seem very retro, particularly to customers who have deployed an increasing number of their applications on relatively low-cost commodity X86 servers, but IBM has seen this approach work at its largest mainframe customers. In the past three quarters, said Balog, Linux represented a very large portion of the aggregate mainframe capacity sold by IBM. (This is measured in the ancient Millions of Instructions Per Second, or MIPS, metric that Big Blue has used since the dawn of time). Exactly how much MIPS and how much money, Balog can’t say. But specialty engines – IBM’s name for System z mainframe motors that have their prices chopped by around 80 per cent and have their workloads restricted to running Linux or to accelerate Java, XML, or DB2 processing – represented more than half of the MIPS sold. Linux is by far the largest driver of specialty engine sales.

“My goal is to have the same trajectory for Linux on Power as we had for mainframes,” says Balog.

You might be thinking, why doesn’t IBM just cut System z and Power System prices so they are competitive on a price/performance basis, whether or not they run Linux, and be done with it? Well, because that leaves a whole lot of money on the table.

Applications and databases written for z/OS and IBM i are very sticky; there simply is no alternative but to port them to an entirely different platform or keep them where they are. AIX is a variant of Unix and therefore its applications are somewhat less sticky in theory, but with IBM being the dominant supplier of Unix systems these days, AIX is a relatively safe bet compared to Oracle’s Sparc/Solaris platform and Hewlett-Packard’s Itanium/HP-UX systems. Linux runs on just about every major server, with the exception of some RISC/Unix machines from Oracle and Fujitsu. The point is, IBM can get away with charging full price for compute capacity on machines that it builds for its own operating systems. But if it wants to attract Linux workloads to its machines, it has to cut hardware prices and remove the gap that separates its Power machines from high-end Xeon and to a lesser extent Opteron machines.

This is precisely what IBM did with its low-end two-socket servers, which carry the PowerLinux brand, that were launched in April 2012. Those machines have somewhat lower prices for processors and drastically reduced pricing for memory and disk capacity compared to regular Power Systems based on the same physical server. With the price cuts, IBM can get the list price of two-socket server restricted to running Linux in the same ballpark as a Xeon machine, and provide a slight performance benefit compared to Xeon machines with equal numbers of cores.

The plan, according to Balog, is to offer something akin to specialty engines on the high-end Power 770, Power 780, and Power 795 machines.

The Power 770 and Power 780 machines come with Power7+ processors these days. These systems are created using a four-socket server as a base, and then up to four of these can be lashed together with IBM’s own on-chip NUMA clustering circuits. The Power 770 usesPower7 chips with 3 or 4 cores activated out of a total of eight, while the Power 780 has chips with four or eight cores activated. So across sixteen sockets, the machine can deliver a maximum of between 48 and 128 cores and up to 4 TB of main memory.  The Power 795 still uses Power7 chips, and scales up to 256 cores and up to 16 TB of main memory.

Configured Power Systems machines at the high end cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and the real issue is how low is IBM willing to cut prices on these big boxes to attract Linux workloads that might otherwise wind up on Silicon Graphics UV 2 systems or even groups of Linux machines running ScaleMP’s vSMP Foundation clustering software, such as those now being sold by Cray. Oracle and Fujitsu also sell big iron based on their respective Sparc M and Sparc64 processors, but these are restricted to the Solaris operating system. And neither company shows any inclination to make Linux a peer on their NUMA machines. It may be too late in the game for that, but IBM already has put in more than a decade with Linux on Power and it thinks it can boost sales by cutting hardware prices and attracting new workloads to Power Systems.

“Server platforms have got to win new workloads, or the platform doesn’t exist,” Balog said bluntly.

What IBM is counting on its that analytics workloads that run better with lots of threads and cores and fat main memories – things that large Power Systems machines have – will come to the platform and run on top of Linux because of the price advantage compared to AIX and the price competitiveness with larger X86 machines.

“Clients want to keep data close to the processor, and they want to do it in memory,” says Balog. “We don’t see that slowing down, and if you talk to clients it is not just about where the data sits, but the problem they face with moving data around. The act of moving data is actually more disruptive than doing queries against it. There is no doubt that there is demand for these kinds of scalable systems with larger shared memories to tackle these big data problems.”

About the author: Timothy Prickett Morgan

Editor in Chief, EnterpriseTech Prickett Morgan brings 25 years of experience as a publisher, IT industry analyst, editor, and journalist for some of the world’s most widely-read high-tech and business publications including The Register, BusinessWeek, Midrange Computing, IT Jungle, Unigram, The Four Hundred, ComputerWire, Computer Business Review, Computer System News and IBM Systems User.

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