Challenging the Xeon

So what caused us to investigate the IBM POWER8 as a viable alternative to the mass market Xeon E5s and not simply the high-end quad (and higher) socket Xeon E7 parts? A lot. IBM sold its x86 server division to Lenovo. So there is only one true server processor left at IBM: the POWER family. But more importantly, the OpenPOWER fondation has a lot of momentum since its birth in 2013. IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation Partners like Google, NVIDIA, and Mellanox are all committed to innovating around the POWER processor-based systems from the chip level up through the whole platform. The foundation has delivered some tangible results:

  • Open Firmware which includes both the firmware to boot the hardware (similar to the BIOS) ...
  • ... as OPAL (OpenPOWER Abstraction Layer) to boot and launch a hypervisor kernel.
  • OpenBMC
  • Cheaper and available to third parties (!) POWER8 chips
  • CAPI over PCIe, to make it easier to link the POWER8 to GPUs (and other PCIe cards)
  • And much more third party hardware support (Mellanox IB etc.)
  • A much large software ecosystem (see further)

The impact of opening up firmware under the Apache v2 license and BMC (IBM calls it "field processor") code should not be underestimated. The big hyperscale companies - Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Rackspace - want as much control over their software stack as they can.

The resuls are that Google is supporting the efforts and Rackspace has even built their own OpenPOWER server called "Barreleye". While Google has been supportive and showing of proof of concepts, Rackspace is going all the way:

... and aim to put Barreleye in our datacenters for OpenStack services early next year.

The end result is that the complete POWER platform, once only available in expensive high end servers, can now be found inside affordable linux based servers, from IBM (S8xxL) and third parties like Tyan. The opinions of usual pundits range from "too little, too late" to "trouble for Intel". Should you check out a POWER8 based server before you order your next Xeon - Linux server? And why? We started with analyzing the available benchmarks carefully.

A Real Alternative? Reading the Benchmarks
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  • hissatsu - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    You might want to look more closely. Thought it's a bit blurry, I'm almost certain that's the 80+ Platinum logo, which has no color. Reply
  • DanNeely - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    That's possible; it looks like there's something at the bottom of the logo. Google image search shows 80+ platinum as a lighter silver/gray than 80+ silver; white is only the original standard. Reply
  • Shezal - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Just look up the part number. It's a Platinum :) Reply
  • The12pAc - Thursday, November 19, 2015 - link

    I have a S814, it's Platinum. Reply
  • johnnycanadian - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Oh yum! THIS is what I still love about AT: non-mainstream previews / reviews. REALLY looking forward to more like this. I only wish SGI still built workstation-level machines. :-( Reply
  • mapesdhs - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link


    Indeed, but it'd need a hefty change in direction at SGI to get back into workstations again, so very unlikely for the forseeable future. They certainly have the required base tech (NUMALink6, MPI offload, etc.), namely lots of sockets/cores/RAM coupled with GPUs for really heavy tasks (big data, GIS, medical, etc.), ie. a theoretical scalable, shared-memory workstation. But the market isn't interested in advanced performance solutions like this atm, and the margin on standard 2/4-socket systems isn't worthwhile, it'd be much cheaper to buy a generic Dell or HP (plus, it's only above this no. of sockets that their own unique tech comes into play). Pity, as the equivalent of a UV 30/300 workstation would be sweet (if expensive), though for virtually all of the tasks discussed in this article, shared memory tech isn't relevant anyway. The notion of connectable, scalable, shared memory workstations based on NV gfx, PCIe and newer multi-core MIPS CPUs was apparently brought up at SGI way back before the Rackable merger, but didn't go anywhere (not viable given the financial situation at the time). It's a neat concept, eg. imagine being able to connect two or more separate ordinary 2/4-socket XEON workstations together (each fitted with, say, a couple of M6000s) to form a single combined system with one OS instance and resources pool, allowing users to combine & split setups as required to match workloads, but it's a notion whose time has not yet come.

    Of course, what's missing entirely is the notion of advanced but costly custom gfx, but again there's no market for that atm either, at least not publicly. Maybe behind the scenes NV makes custom stuff the way SGI used to for relevant customers (DoD, Lockheed, etc.), but SGI's products always had some kind of commercially available equivalent from which the custom builds were derived (IRx gfx), whereas atm there's no such thing as a Quadro with 30000 cores and 100GB RAM that costs $50K and slides into more than one PCIe slot which anyone can buy if they have the moolah. :D

    Most of all though, even if the demand existed and the tech could be built, it'd never work unless SGI stopped using its pricing-is-secret reseller sales model. They should have adopted a direct sales setup long ago, order on the site, pricing configurator, etc., but that never happened, even though the lack of such an option killed a lot of sales. Less of an issue with the sort of products they sell atm, but a better sales model would be essential if they were to ever try to sell workstations again, and that'd need a huge PR/sales management clearout to be viable.

    Pity IBM couldn't pay NV to make custom gfx, that'd be interesting, but then IBM quit the workstation market aswell.

    Ian.
    Reply
  • mostlyharmless - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    "There is definitely a market for such hugely expensive and robust server systems as high end RISC machines are good for about 50.000 servers. "

    Rounding error?
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    50k clients would be my guess. Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    (dot) versus (comma) most likely. Euro centric versus 'Murcan centric. Reply
  • DanNeely - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    If that was the case, a plain 50 would be much more appropriate. Reply

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