Analysis: IBM's POWERful New System

The data center impact of the new POWER 575 systems that IBM announced last month could be nothing short of radical

It probably shouldn't surprise you that the new Power 575 systems IBM Corp. announced early last month are the very stuff of Hot Boxes: computationally dense systems -- each node is populated with 32 POWER6 processor cores -- with significant cache (640 MB of L2 and L3 cache in each node) and extremely high clock speeds (4.7-GHz).

If Power 575 is a Hot Box computationally, it's a Cool Box -- or a comparatively Cool Box -- physically: Big Blue uses water cooling to keep processor temps down and (more importantly) to reduce the cost of powering and cooling a Power 575 data center. The result, says Jonathan Eunice, a senior IT advisor (and co-founder) with consultancy Illuminata, is a formidable computing beast.

"Each node is as potent as a complete enterprise-grade Big Iron Unix server of just five years ago. And the nodes are designed to be combined -- 14 to each frame, times as many frames as you'd like," Eunice writes.

In case you don't have a calculator handy (or aren't well-versed in modulo 14 or 32 math), that's 448 processor cores per 24-inch Power 575 frame.

"To put this in perspective, each drawer/node roughly matches the big p690s IBM sold to leading HPC customers earlier in the decade," Eunice continues. "[A] single rack of these would qualify as one of the world's Top 500 supercomputers as of the last [i.e., November 2007] TOP500 listing."

In the data center, Eunice suggests, the Power 575's impact could be nothing short of radical. "The Power 575 is also a radical proposition in its relationship to the datacenter. These are not individual computers so much as modules for large computing facilities -- what some like to call 'information factories,'" he points out.

For example, Eunice notes, the Power 575 doesn't plug into a traditional data center PDU (Power Distribution Unit), nor -- for that matter -- does it require air cooling via traditional CRACs (Computer Room Air Conditioners). "It obviates such units," Eunice argues, noting that Power 575 "can take 480 volt, three-phase power directly into the frame, and it cools processors directly with chilled water." The upshot, Eunice argues, is that Power 575 becomes in effect, the data center, simply by virtue of its becoming the infrastructure. "It's no exaggeration to say that a rack capable of efficiently consuming and cooling 75 kilowatts or so to drive hundreds of processor cores, terabytes of memory, over a terabit of aggregate I/O, and that then can be easily combined with a lot more of those racks -- that is a radical design for extreme performance," he argues.

It's a radical design the time of which might well be nigh, Eunice argues, noting that next-gen application workloads -- including, especially, a growing focus on analytics as a profit-generating and competitive difference-enabling technology -- will place a premium on computational horsepower.

That's one reason why the data warehouse appliance segment is hopping: these companies throw brute computational horsepower at the issues (including poor ad hoc query performance, monolithic data models, for example) that have bedeviled analytic consumers for a decade or more.

"[M]any organizations view analytics and the resulting ability to make more profitable decisions as the heart of what they want from information technology," Eunice argues. "And when they want analysis, they want it now. Understanding a market trend or pricing shift after it's happened may be useful for academics or regulators, but traders want to see it in real-time, when they can still make a buck off the shift. Airlines, hotels, and other travel/hospitality providers want to understand the best pricing strategy while the customer is browsing their Web sites or still on the phone, when a deal can be struck that optimizes company results -- not hours later, after the customer has moved on. Executives want superior actions and outcomes, not just better information."

The salient takeaway, Eunice contends, is that a new class of high-performance compute resources, of which Power 575 is one, will wrest the mantle of high performance computing (HPC) back from the technical computing crowd.

"'High Performance Computing' used to be another way of saying 'technical and scientific computing,' which immediately excluded 94.3 percent … of an enterprise audience," Eunice explains. "But not so much any more. IT is increasingly responsible for operating their organizations' consolidated computing assets, including the infrastructure underlying new product development and manufacture. Moreover, HPC has increasing relevance to the database combing and analytic applications that drive business decisions."

For this reason, Eunice sees the Power 575 as a signal deliverable.

"The Power 575 is part of [a new] vanguard. Given the high level of virtualization support seen in the POWER6 family, you could even build a general-purpose or network-computing infrastructure with Power 575 nodes," he indicates. "It would be a radical approach, perhaps, but a few years ago, so would much of the highly-virtualized, network-delivered, analytics-forward computing now seen as an 'of course!' proposition by so much of IT."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.