IBM Refreshes System P Line with POWER7-based Products

Big Blue's refresh includes the gargantuan POWER 795, which it pits against top-shelf systems from HP and Oracle.

IBM Corp. last week refreshed its System p server line with several new POWER7-based systems. The newest POWER7 entries won't ship until September 17.

They'll likely be worth the wait. Big Blue's revamped System p line includes the gargantuan 256-way POWER 795, which IBM pits directly against top-shelf offerings from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Oracle Corp.

Big Blue isn't just thinking big, however: it also unveiled four System p "Express" entries -- i.e., smaller, less-costly systems slated for the mid-market. IBM's POWER7 push also includes a dedicated system -- viz., the Smart Analytics System 7700 -- designed for business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing workloads. It's of a piece with the Smart Analytics initiative that Big Blue kicked off last summer, just prior to its acquisition of analytics powerhouse SPSS Inc.

IBM's 256-core POWER 795 plays to System p's (and RISC/Unix's) traditional strengths, and its smaller Express entries -- the Power 710, 720, 730, and 740 systems -- comprise Big Blue's latest effort to grapple with commodity x86 (or x64, as is universally the case) servers running chips from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc. and Intel Corp. Previously, Big Blue had offered only a single POWER-based Express system, the Power 720.

In this case, Big Blue is betting that a much lower cost (enabled in part by using POWER7 chips that might otherwise have been discarded) as well as an ability to run AIX, System i and Linux workloads will help tip the scales in System p's favor. Furthermore, with POWER7, IBM is once again fielding a 2U form-factor server -- in fact, two 2U form-factor servers, the Power 710 and the Power 730. Add it all up and you have what looks like an honest effort to take on the commodity server segment -- a historically tough segment to crack.

Proprietary Redux

In an industry that's moving to commoditization (and relentlessly, at that), IBM Corp. is sticking to its proprietary guns.

To be sure, Big Blue is a creditable commodity player -- its System x hardware line is powered by chips from both AMD and Intel; its System x BladeCenter portfolio (which includes a POWER-based offering) is No. 2, overall, behind HP -- but it likewise remains committed to homegrown silicon efforts such as POWER7, which powers (in one form or another) its System i, System p, and System z hardware lines.

In a sense, Big Blue's POWER7 CMOS now stands as the Last of the Credible x86 Alternatives.

HP and Intel continue to invest in IA64 (which is based on an EPIC architecture); Oracle has said most of the right things about SPARC (which has nonetheless been hemorrhaging relevance for half a decade or more); and other players (such as Fujitsu and Unisys Corp.) push their own proprietary CMOS flavors, but none can point to the kind of revenue performance (relative to sales of competitive, non-commodity platforms) that IBM can.

Adjusting for economic uncertainty -- and accepting IBM's explanation of a late-2009 and early-2010 depression in demand for both System p and System z hardware ahead of scheduled platform refreshes -- System z has been one of Big Blue's most reliable cash cows; System p, on the other hand, has grown its share of the (shrinking) Unix revenue base even as HP and Oracle have bled market share.

That being said, Big Blue's POWER-derived lines, like all platforms, took their lumps during the recent economic downturn. Sales of IBM's POWER-based lines (like other non-x86 systems) have likewise trailed sales of commodity systems in the recovery period, too. In terms of both sales and performance, however, IBM's POWER-derived System z and System p lines have the legs of EPIC- and SPARC-based hardware from HP and Sun.

Last week, for example, IBM trumpeted the record TPC performance of its new Power 795 behemoth, which handily surpassed competitive configurations from both HP and Oracle in the (aging) TPC-C metric.

Big Blue also published a comparison of the combined performance and energy efficiency of the new Power 795 versus its top-shelf predecessor, the Power 595. The POWER7-based 795 achieves four times the performance of the POWER6-based 595, IBM says.

A Bifurcated Strategy

Industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, thinks POWER7 will help IBM pad its position in the Unix server segment, where it enjoys a "comfortable" lead over competitors HP and Oracle.

On the Unix front, King cites both Big Blue's share of Unix market revenues (which has increased by 14 percent since 2005) and the number of customers (285) that IBM claims to have snagged from its Unix competitors in just the last quarter. "Both of these [values] suggest that businesses continue to be put off by IBM's distracted and/or underachieving competitors, a situation which is likely to continue or accelerate given the stellar performance of the new POWER7-based systems," King argues.

King is considerably less sanguine about POWER7's prospects in the commodity server segment, however. "The greatest challenge IBM's Power Systems face is coming from below, where robust, ever-evolving Intel- and AMD-based servers are pressing ever-upward," he continues. Because of this, he suggests, "the pickings for Power and other UNIX systems [will] become increasingly slim in the low- to mid-market."

One effective response to this trend is to do just what IBM has been doing -- i.e., double-down on its high-end RISC/Unix and mainframe expertise, even as it experiments with strategies to stem the bleeding in the low end.

"[I]t is no surprise that the new POWER7-based offerings present an essentially bifurcated focus; dropping a TPC performance bomb on HP and Oracle on the one hand while delivering attractively-priced and featured new midrange Express systems on the other," he points out.

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