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Coverage of IBM's OpenPOWERSummit Announcements

April 12, 2016

Last week I was in Austin for a Linux on Power workshop, when, as the kids say, my Twitter timeline blew up with news from the OpenPOWERSummit in San Jose.

Appropriately enough, as I started to write this, I saw tweets from Nigel Griffiths and David Spurway that referred to IBM's "unusual" announcement.

I think part of what's driving interest in this topic is that IBM typically keeps its cards close to the vest. The company seldom chooses to publicly reveal its future plans prior to announcements and general availability. Of course, many industry observers (myself included) have attended briefings where IBM tells you what's ahead, but in those cases they've always made us sign NDAs. So, such public talk about POWER9 processors, which won't be available until well into 2017, is indeed pretty surprising. Then consider Google's involvement -- they've never been forthcoming about their use of POWER -- and you can see why this is such a big deal. Industry watchers, even those who primarily cover Microsoft or Apple, are realizing that Linux on Power solutions and POWER8 performance are worth paying attention to.

Anyway, for those of you who aren't on Twitter, I'll cite some of the articles covering the announcements relating to IBM POWER8 and POWER9 processors.

The Register:

OpenPower Summit IBM's POWER9 processor, due to arrive in the second half of next year, will have 24 cores, double that of today's POWER8 chips, it emerged today.

Meanwhile, Google has gone public with its Power work – confirming it has ported many of its big-name web services to the architecture, and that rebuilding its stack for non-Intel gear is a simple switch flip.

The POWER9 will be a 14nm high-performance FinFET product fabbed by Global Foundries. It is directly attached to DDR4 RAM, talks PCIe gen-4 and NVLink 2.0 to peripherals and Nvidia GPUs, and can chuck data at accelerators at 25Gbps.

The POWER9 is due to arrive in 2017, and be the brains in the U.S. Department of Energy's Summit and Sierra supercomputers.

Google says it has ported many of its big-name web services to run on Power systems; its toolchain has been updated to output code for x86, ARM or Power architectures with the flip of a configuration flag.

Google and Rackspace working together on Power9 server blueprints for the Open Compute Project. These designs are compatible with the 48V Open Compute racks Google and Facebook are working on.

The blueprints can be given to hardware factories to turn out machines relatively cheaply, which is the point of the Open Compute Project: driving down costs and designing hardware to hyper-scale requirements. Rackspace will use the systems to run POWER9 workloads in its cloud.

The system itself is codenamed Zaius: a dual-socket POWER9 SO server with 32 DDR4 memory slots, two NVlink slots, three PCIe gen-4 x16 slots, and a total core count of 44. And what's not to like? For one thing: high-speed NVlink interconnects between CPUs and Nvidia GPU accelerators, which Google likes to throw its deep-learning AI code at.

The Next Platform:

Google, as one of the five founding members of the OpenPower Foundation in the summer of 2013, is always secretive about its server, storage, and switching platforms, absent the occasional glimpse that only whets the appetite for more disclosures. But at last year’s OpenPower Summit, Gordon McKean, senior director of server and storage systems design and the first chairman of the foundation, gave The Next Platform a glimpse into its thinking about Power-based systems, saying that the company was concerned about the difficulty of squeezing more performance out of systems, and his boss, Urs Hölzle, senior vice president of the technical infrastructure team, confirmed to us in a meeting at the Googleplex that Google would absolutely switch to a Power architecture for its systems, even for a single generation, if it could get a 20 percent price/performance advantage.

Maire Mahoney, engineering manager at Google and now a director of the OpenPower Foundation, confirmed to The Next Platform that Google does indeed have custom Power8 machines running in its datacenters and that developers can deploy key Google applications onto these platforms if they see fit. Mahoney was not at liberty to say how many Power-based machines are running in Google’s datacenters or what particular workloads were running in production (if any). What she did say is that Google “was all in” with its Power server development and echoed the comments of Hölzle that if the Power machines “give us the TCO then we will do it.”

The POWER8 chips got Google’s attention because of the massive memory and I/O bandwidth they have compared to Xeon processors, and it looks like Google and the other hyperscalers have been able to get IBM to forge the POWER9 chip in their image, with more cores and even more I/O and memory bandwidth. “The vision is to build scale out server systems taking advantage of the amazing I/O subsystem that the OpenPower architecture delivers,” Mahoney added.

We happen to think that Rackspace would have done something like Zaius on its own, but the fact that Google is helping with the design and presumably will deploy it in some reasonable volumes means that the ecosystem of manufacturing partners for the Zaius machines should be larger than for Barreleye. And with IBM shipping on the order of several tens of thousands of Power systems a year at this point, if Google and Rackspace dedicate even a small portion of their fleets to Power, it would be a big bump up in shipments.

I received links to these articles in a group email to IBM Champions:

Bloomberg: Google also said it’s developing a data center server with cloud-computing company Rackspace Hosting Inc. that runs on a new IBM OpenPower chip called POWER9, rather than Intel processors that go into most servers. The final design will be given away through Facebook Inc.’s Open Compute Project, so other companies can build their data center servers this way, too.

Fortune: The search giant [Google] said on Wednesday that, along with cloud computing company Rackspace, it’s co-developing new server designs that are based on IBM chip technology.

IDG News Service: Two years ago, Google showed a Power server board it had developed for testing purposes, though it hadn't said much about those efforts since. It's now clear that Google is serious about using the IBM chip in its infrastructure.

San Antonio Business Journal: The two tech giants are using an open source server created by IBM called the POWER9 processor. It is among more than 50 new products being developed across 200 technology companies as part of the OpenPOWER Foundation, an industry controlled nonprofit dealing with the reality and cost of big data demands.

TechRepublic: The benefit of the Power architecture goes beyond price for performance. Because of the architectural limitations of x86-64, Intel has faced substantive difficulty pushing the number of threads in a processor. Intel's 22-core Xeon E5-2699 v4 is limited to 44 threads, whereas the 12-core POWER8 has 96 threads.

ZDNet: "The explosion of data requires systems and infrastructures based on POWER8+ accelerators that can both stream and manage the data and quickly synthesize and make sense of data," IBM said about the UM [University of Michigan] partnership.

The Next Platform: IBM Unfolds Power Chip Roadmap Out Past 2020.

As a POWER bigot, I love it when mainstream tech outlets acknowledge the benefits of the technology I know and love. And I'm excited to think that this publicity will lead to new customers potentially choosing Linux on Power over x86 solutions.

Posted April 12, 2016 | Permalink

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