The Summer’s First Blockbuster: IBM Unveils POWER6

IBM claims that its new System p p570 offers three times the performance of a comparable Superdome system from HP

Big Blue last week unveiled its long-awaited POWER6 processor, a dual-core monster that—with a top speed of 4.7 GHz—effectively doubles the speed of its existing POWER5 chips.

That’s not all. The company also unveiled a POWER6-based RISC/Unix system, the System p p570. With improved virtualization capabilities and built-in energy-saving features, Big Blue claims that POWER6 approximately doubles the performance of POWER5 while consuming the same amount of electricity, giving customers the option of running all-out or scaling back processor speed to reduce electricity and cooling costs.

IBM claims that its new System p p570 offers three times the performance (per core) of a comparable Superdome system from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP). In fact, the System p p570 became the first server ever to post top performance marks in the Specint, Specfp, SPECjbb2005, and TCP/IP benchmarks.

As they say in late-night advertisements: but wait, there’s more. POWER6 is the first deliverable in IBM’s ambitious eCLipz project—an effort to consolidate all of Big Blue’s non-x86 server platforms on to a single, common architecture. In this respect, the “ipz” in eCLipz denotes System i, System p, and System z compatibility, and—true to its designation—the POWER6 offers redundancy features and support for mainframe instructions (including 50 new floating-point instructions designed to handle decimal math and conversions between binary and decimal).

On top of this, POWER6 features an AltiVec unit (a floating-point and integer processing engine), compliance with IBM’s Power ISA v.2.03 specification, and support for Big Blue’s Virtual Vector Architecture-2 (ViVA-2), which lets a combination of POWER6 nodes function as a single Vector processor.

The POWER6 certainly has the stamp of a blockbuster. IBM officials point to its enhanced support for virtualization, for example, which far outstrips the status quo of just five years ago, when System p had a hard limit of one logical partition (LPAR) per processor; Armonk’s new POWER6-based systems can support 1024 LPARS. In addition, IBM touted a new virtualization feature, dubbed Partition Mobility, which lets administrators move live virtual machines from one physical server to another while maintaining availability. Partition Mobility is currently in beta, but Big Blue expects to deliver it by the end of the year. Earlier this month, Microsoft Corp. announced it was yanking a similar virtualization technology from its forthcoming Viridian virtualization product.

Living Up to the Hype

So can POWER6 possibly live up to its hype? Analysts seem to think so. Much like POWER5—which catapulted to the top of the performance heap when it shipped three years ago—POWER6 is a behemoth, says veteran industry-watcher Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT.

King doesn’t equivocate, either. “By design, next-generation IT solutions mean to be impressive. After all, they tend to encompass a vendor’s best and brightest engineering efforts, technical achievements, and business value propositions,” he points out. “But by any measure, IBM’s POWER6 and System p p570 appear to chart new frontiers for RISC and UNIX … levels of performance.”

Benchmark leapfrogging is a fact of life in the RISC/Unix space, but King suggests that a new metaphor might be a bit more appropriate in the case of the POWER6. “Those familiar with UNIX system benchmarks know that the game often involves systems leapfrogging one another, but the POWER6 benchmark results come closer to what we would call a pole vaulting experience,” he indicates.

One key, King points out, is that POWER6 isn’t all brawn; it’s got a gentle cycle, too, in the form of its new energy-saving feature set. “[T]he more important and impressive POWER6 story revolves around system flexibility, particularly in terms of energy and performance management and expanded virtualization,” he argues. “Traditionally, RISC systems provide the muscular throughput necessary to dependably support critical database and back-end business application performance. POWER6 and the new System p p570 deliver on all those values and flexibly reach into new territory, offering users the means to finely tune systems to achieve specific business, energy, and technical goals.”

There’s a further wrinkle here, too, says King. IBM is offering its new POWER6-based system at the same price point as a comparable midrange server from HP. Big Blue’s strategy is obvious, King observes: lure customers by offering superior performance at a similar price point. For this reason, he argues, HP’s Itanium-powered systems will lose what he calls the price-for-profit/price-for-performance game --just as Itanium sales start to pick up.

“In essence, POWER6 is an Itanium-killer. With triple the transaction processing performance of an HP Itanium/Montecito-based midrange server—but priced the same—IBM is going specifically and directly after HP Itanium-based servers,” he argues. “Itanium is vulnerable for a number of reasons—including lack of innovation, constant schedule slips, serious challenges from 32-/64-bit hybrids, [the] surrounding ecosystem, and so on.”

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