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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  • extide - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    No he meant that in a lot of the european countries they use the dot as a comma, so it would be 50.000 to mean 50 thousand. Reply
  • Murloc - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    the international system dictates that , and . are the same thing, and as a separator you should use a space.
    In many countries in Europe, ' is also used. That's fine too as there is no ambiguity.
    Using . and , for anything that is not the decimal separator in international websites just creates confusion imho.
    I guess AT doesn't have a style book though.
    Reply
  • duploxxx - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    nice review.
    but Xeon is not 95% of the market. AMD is still just a bit above 5% on its own. so it deserves a bit salt :) not to mention the fact that competition is good for all of us. if reviewers continue like this all narrowed readers will think there is no competition.
    Reply
  • silverblue - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    I'm left wondering what a Steamroller-based 16+ core CPU would do here, considering multithreading is better than with previous models. Yes, the Xeons have a large single-threading lead, but more cores = good in the server world, not to mention that such a CPU would severely undercut the price of the competition.

    Shame it isn't ever going to happen!
    Reply
  • lmcd - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Or even an Excavator! It's a shame AMD didn't just keep Bulldozer developing internally until at least Piledriver, and iterate on Thuban. Reply
  • Kevin G - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    AMD killed off both Streamroller and Excavator chips early on as the Bulldozer and Piledriver chips weren't as competitive. More importantly, OEMs simply were not interested even if those parts were upgrades based upon existing designs. Thus the great AMD server drought began as they effectively have left that market and are hoping for a return with Zen.

    Also I should point out that Seattle, AMD's first ARM based Opteron has yet to arrive. This was supposed to be out a year ago and keep AMD's server business going throughout 2015 during the wait for Zen and K12 in 2016. Well K12 has already been delayed into 2017 and Seattle is no where to be found in commercial systems (there are a handle of Seattle developer boards).
    Reply
  • JoeMonco - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    When you account for only 5% of the market while the other side commands 95%, you aren't really much of a credible competitor. Reply
  • xype - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    That’s not always correct, though. You can have 5% of the market and 20% of the profits, for example, which would put you in a way better position than your competitors (because only a small increase in market share would pay big time). Reply
  • Murloc - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    that applies more to consumer products, e.g. apple. Reply
  • dgingeri - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    I've been dealing with IBM Power based machines for 5 years now. Such experience has only given me a major disdain for AIX.

    I do NOT advise it for anyone. It sucks to work on. There is a certain consistent, spartan logic to it, but it is difficult to learn, and learning materials are EXTREMELY expensive. I never liked the idea of paying $12,000 for a one week class that taught me barely a tenth of what I needed to know to run an AIX network. (My company paid for the class, but I could not get them to pay for the rest of them, for some reason.) This makes people who can support AIX extremely expensive to employ. Figure on paying twice the rate of a Windows admin in order to employ an AIX admin. Then there is the massive expense of maintenance agreements. Even the software only maintenance agreement, just to get patches for AIX, is $4000 per year per system. They may be competitive in cost up front, but they drain money like vampires to maintain.

    Even the most modern IBM Power based machine takes 20-30 minutes to reboot or power up due to POST diagnostics. That alone is annoying enough to make me avoid AIX as much as I can.
    Reply

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