A Power is Born: System i, System p Converge

If Big Blue's new Power Express systems are harbingers of 'the future, users can expect ever-greater density and performance

For some time, IBM Corp.'s three Big Enterprise product lines -- System z, System i (AS/400), and System p (RS/6000) platforms -- were all on converging paths.

Last week, two of these platforms -- System i and System p -- officially converged. At its COMMON user group meeting in Nashville, Big Blue unveiled two standard configuration systems -- the IBM Power 520 Express and the IBM Power 550 Express -- that can run the AIX, Linux, or IBM i operating environments. It's been a long time coming. If Big Blue's new Power Express systems are harbingers of what's down the road, we can expect ever-greater density and performance. However, don't try to buy branded System i or System p hardware because it doesn't exist -- as such -- anymore.

Convergence: The Backstory

Convergence is reasonable. Instead of developing and maintaining separate CMOS and chipset architectures, not to mention the attendant hardware and support infrastructures, it makes more sense for Big Blue to consolidate System z, System i, and System p functionality on a über-system capable of simultaneously acting as all three platforms.

This logic is especially compelling when it comes to IBM's System i and System p assets, observers say. "IBM has been steadily tearing down the wall between the two lines. Both i and p have used the same Power-family processor for several years now. However, this announcement represents the first time that the wall is down. System i is System p and vice versa," writes Gordon Haff, a senior IT advisor with Illuminata. "What this means is that there's now one common set of system models that can run AIX, [System] i [OS/400], or Linux operating systems -- or a combination of them using the integrated server virtualization features that fall under the PowerVM umbrella."

Big Blue's first stab at convergence is surprisingly low-key: the two systems it announced, the four-way Power 520 Express and the eight-way Power 550 Express, aren't exactly high-end models. IBM also announced an i Edition Express for its BladeCenter S, which brings the i OS up to par with Big Blue's previously announced AIX blades while adding a new single-socket blade (the JS12).

Low-key or not, Haff argues, it's a watershed announcement. "This is both a major midrange product announcement and the final -- or, at least, as final as such things ever are -- coming together of a complex organizational and product integration task that's been going on for years," Haff argues.

Not Always So Clear-Cut

It might seem that the product line convergence was a foregone conclusion, but Big Blue didn't always concede as much. Industry veteran Joe Clabby, a principal with Clabby Analytics (and a former Gartner Inc. analyst) tells a story about his visit to System i's (AS/400's) Mecca -- i.e., Rochester, Minn. -- nearly a decade ago. After IBM finished discussing the benefits of using POWER underpinnings across both its System i and System p lines, Clabby took the question-begging bait: why not build one system that can host both platforms?

"The response was that the AS/400 had several 'unique requirements' that could only be fulfilled by using a separate chassis design and separate, specially designed microprocessor," Clabby indicates. "I was not satisfied with that answer -- it seemed obvious to me that IBM could save millions of dollars by combining the two systems. By doing so, IBM could buy larger volumes of standard components -- saving money using volume purchase agreements -- reduce its inventory of spare parts, and realize other efficiencies."

Of course, Clabby concedes, the long-anticipated convergence of IBM's System i and System p platforms isn't entirely about saving Big Blue money. "[C]ombining the two systems does indeed save IBM tons of money in design, manufacturing, and inventory. But this move was not totally about reducing systems costs. As it turns out, the number one goal for this effort was to make the upgrade completely seamless and ensure binary compatibility -- a very time consuming task that took years," he points out. "IBM knew that it had to protect the investments that its clients had made in AS/400 and System i applications. And it put this goal ahead of the economies of scale savings."

The word "synergy" tends to be drastically overused in such cases, but -- Clabby contends -- it's surprisingly appropriate in this regard: combining System i and System p into a single chassis lets Big Blue achieve new and hitherto unrealized synergies -- particularly with respect to every data center's bête noire du jour: power and cooling requirements. In this sense, Clabby argues, Big Blue's new Power systems are harbingers of things to come.

"The newly merged platform … is an engineering marvel. Great attention has been paid to reducing power consumption, dissipating heat, and reducing the system's footprint, all while drastically increasing overall processing power [the Power 6 clicks in at over 5GHz]," Clabby observes. "Cameras were not allowed in the facility, but the watercooling design used to cool hundreds of cores in a given rack is most impressive -- a real work of art … [that isn't] the rear door heat exchanger … [but] a completely new design that brings water directly to the microprocessor."

While Big Blue's initial Power system announcements might indeed seem low-key -- the new four- and eight-way Power Express systems are orders of magnitude removed from the 32- and 64-way behemoths that IBM and its competitors market at the high-ends of their respective product lines -- they deliver an aggregate improvement in raw processing performance that borders on jaw-dropping.

"These power, cooling, real-estate, and performance design features become even more pronounced when compared against a 64-core HP Superdome system," he asserts. "An eight-core Power 550 server offers 16 percent better performance than a comparably equipped HP Superdome … [while using] 98 percent less space … and [consuming] 91 percent less energy," Clabby continues.

"Further, by using fewer cores, software licensing costs can be greatly reduced on the new Power systems. Software license costs are often based on the number of cores, so using 56 fewer cores than an HP Superdome can result in software cost savings that can range as high as 87 percent!"