POWER7 Makes a Splash

The recent POWER7 launch hints at what Big Iron aficionados can expect from System z11, particularly about performance and energy efficiency.

The launch of POWER7 was important for IBM Corp. The microprocessor not only taps POWER to "power" its System p and System i lines but also uses a variant of the POWER CMOS in its System z mainframes.

Along with a System z11 refresh slotted for later this year, Big Blue's POWER7 announcement provides a glimpse into what Big Iron aficionados could expect from z11, particularly in performance and energy efficiency.

One of the more surprising takeaways from the POWER7 launch event was the marked absence of chest-thumping, at least on the performance front. "When IBM announces a new microprocessor version, it typically concentrates on speeds and feeds," notes industry veteran Joe Clabby, a principal with Clabby Analytics and a former Gartner Inc. analyst.

The reason: each new revision of the POWER architecture vies with (and typically trumps) competitive architectures -- RISC, CISC, or EPIC -- for performance bragging rights. POWER7 is an extremely fast chip, Clabby stresses: it's just that -- instead of hyping performance feats or clock speeds -- Big Blue "took a more holistic approach and focused on how POWER7 systems operate and how they relate to the company's strategic 'Smarter Planet' initiative," he reports.

POWER7 packs plenty of performance. It ships in 4-, 6-, and 8-core MCM (that's multi-chip module, in POWER-speak) packages and will (ultimately) clock in at 4.14 GHz on the top-end. Elsewhere, it supports simultaneous multithreading (SMT) and DDR3 memory, boasts multiple memory controllers, and (an increasingly popular design characteristic) integrates both L2 and L3 cache. What's more, notes industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, POWER7 arguably amounts to a high-performance bargain: IBM says it can deliver four times the performance of its predecessor, POWER6+, even though it sells for the same price.

"POWER7's significant performance improvements mean that it is unlikely that any competing platforms or systems will pressure, let alone alter, IBM's current UNIX performance leadership position," he writes, noting that Big Blue's POWER6 and POWER6+ systems claim bragging rights in dozens of industry benchmarks.

Performance Takes a Back Seat

POWER7’s pitch was in part given over to a theme -- energy efficiency -- which mainframe technologists will doubtless recognize as a defining characteristic of Big Blue's Big Iron pitch. With POWER7 and its new "Smarter Planet" push, IBM has refined that message, however. Energy efficiency isn't just a function of driving system-wide reductions in the amount of energy consumed -- chiefly by engineering more efficient or less power-hungry components; it's now a matter of understanding how, when, and where energy is consumed and by what devices.

In this respect, it's about telemetry; Smarter Planet, per IBM's pitch, is an effort to map and understand the telemetry issues associated with data center energy usage.

Telemetry involves both the collection and analysis of data. With POWER7, Big Blue is pitching its System p Unix systems, in particular, as strong platforms for telemetry crunching.

"POWER7-based systems also excel at number-crunching on a massive scale -- making them ideal for handling the very large databases typical in Smarter Planet applications," Clabby notes.

This is clearly a forward-looking vision; a recent study from Gartner Inc., for example, found that most Green IT initiatives are still grappling with the basics -- such as driving system-wide reductions in energy usage (see http://esj.com/Articles/2009/10/13/Data-Center-Green-Future.aspx). On the other hand, the same Gartner survey found that a sizeable percentage of enterprise IT organizations (fully one-sixth) expect to max out their data center capacities at some point over the next 18 months. These shops plan to build new data centers -- or add extra data center resources -- to address their capacity needs.

IBM's Smarter Planet pitch is as much about seeding a market -- touting POWER7's telemetry-crunching credentials as a soon-and-inevitably-to-be-exploited value-add (an option for a Greener IT future) even as RISC-Unix and even some Linux shops tap System p (the Unix market leader, with -- according to Gartner -- 40 percent of the overall Unix share) to address critical capacity shortcomings.

King seems intrigued by Big Blue's POWER7-based Smarter Planet pitch. "[IBM] made extremely strong cases both for POWER7 delivering significant benefits to traditional business applications and for providing the engine driving next-generation Smarter Planet workloads and processes," he writes. "How this will play exactly in the market is unclear but as systems become ever more complex, it seems entirely possible that microprocessors will increasingly take a back seat to overall server evolution."