Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, October 3, 2023

IBM Slashes Hardware Prices to Push Linux on Power 

As it had been hinting to EnterpriseTech that it would do, IBM has taken a page out of its mainframe playbook and is offering cut-throat prices on processing capacity and memory for its largest Power Systems machines when they run the Linux operating system.

In conjunction with the launch of the Power Integrated Facility for Linux, which is a mainframe-style name if there ever was one, Big Blue is also allowing customers to create what it calls Power Enterprise Pools. These pools allow for the rights to use Power processor cores to move from one physical machine to another one. Taken together, IBM is looking to add some flexibility that customers using Linux as well as its own AIX and IBM i (formerly OS/400) operating systems need while at the same time making Linux on big iron competitive with high-end X86 servers.

Several years ago, IBM created what it calls specialty engines for its System z mainframes. These are processor cores on its System z mainframes that are roped off from the other cores in the processor complex that run its z/OS, z/VSE, or z/VM operating systems. These specialty engines cost about one-fifth as much to activate a core as regular mainframe engines - IBM doesn't publish prices for mainframes but the word on the street is that it is around $80,000 per core for a specialty engine compared to $400,000 per core for regular motors that mostly run z/OS, the flagship mainframe operating system. These specialty engines are allowed to run Java, XML, and DB2 database routines that are offloaded from the main engines, and that brings down the overall cost of the System z mainframe for a set level of performance on these workloads. This approach has been so successful that specialty engines now account for more than half the aggregate amount of processing capacity that IBM sells on mainframes each quarter. Linux is the dominant driver of specialty engine sales.

IBM is hoping to repeat this marketing trick with its high-end Power 770, 780, and 795 NUMA systems, and it is no coincidence that this Power IFL is coming to market just after Doug Balog moved over from IBM's System z division to run its Power Systems division earlier this summer.

The Power IFL pricing is available on Power 770 and Power 780 machines using either Power7 or Power7+ processors and is also available on Power 795 machines, which only have Power7 chips. (IBM never adds a "plus" version of its chip to its largest SMP machine in the Power Systems line, for reasons it has never really explained.) These are machines that have so-called capacity on demand features, which means they ship with the full complement of processors and main memory in their frames and customers can activate cores and memory capacity as they need it.

A Power IFL is not one core, as it is on a System z mainframe, but a block of four cores on one of these big Power machines. The System z IFL does not include a set amount of main memory activation in its cost, but the Power IFL does, and it is set at 32 GB. (You can add more memory to the cores if you want, and it does not get the discounted price.) The Power IFL also includes four licenses to the PowerVM Enterprise Edition hypervisor, which is used to carve up a Power-based system into logical partitions. Steve Sibley, director of worldwide product management for IBM's Power Systems division, says that the maintenance fees related to the Power IFL hardware are also discounted. The Power IFL does not include a license to a Linux operating system from either Red Hat or SUSE Linux, which are the only two vendors who support a commercial-grade Linux on IBM Power or mainframe processors. You have to buy a base Power 770, 780, or 795 machine to start, of course, and there is no discounting on this base system.

To try to keep things as simple as possible, IBM has set the price of the Power IFL processor and memory activation at a flat $8,600 for the four cores and 32 GB of memory, regardless of whether you are buying it for a Power 770, a Power 780, or a Power 795. (This is not the case for raw capacity on these machines, which gets more expensive as you move up the NUMA scalability and the clock speeds.) If you do the math, this Power IFL pricing is on the order of a 75 percent discount off list price for processor and memory activations on these machines. Sibley adds that the Power IFL pricing is about 20 percent more expensive than capacity costs on a four-socket PowerLinux 7R4 system using the same Power7+ chips as are used in the Power 770 and 780. (The clock speeds are a little different in the machines, so this is not a perfect comparison.) The idea, says Sibley, is for the capacity to be in the same rough price range as processor cores and memory on a four-socket Xeon E5 or Xeon E7 server.

IBM has a few goals with the Power IFLs. First, it wants to get big jobs that might be used on fat X86 NUMA machines running Linux to move onto Power-based servers. IBM believes that it can sell customers on the idea of using Linux on Power machines, and is investing $1 billion over the next several years to help software vendors port their code from X86 machines to Power and to help them do the marketing after they are done. IBM actually wants to have Linux sales fill in the gap of declining AIX sales on the Power platform. (It is debatable if this goal can be achieved, with so much momentum behind X86 machines and Intel prepping its next-generation "Ivy Bridge" Xeon E5-4600 and E7-4800 processors. But the Power machines are not without their merit, with huge amounts of cache on the processors, high clock speeds, and much more memory and I/O bandwidth than most X86 systems can deliver. (The UV 2000 NUMA systems from SGI are no slouch, either, in this department, and they support Windows and Linux on X86 chips, so there is no porting issue at all. There is no Windows Server operating system for IBM's Power chip, but there was supposed to be before IBM and Microsoft pulled the plug many, many years ago.)

IBM is also hoping that customers that might otherwise deploy applications and databases in a distributed manner on a cluster of Linux machines, perhaps using InfiniBand networking or a higher-speed implementation of Ethernet will consider running Linux in partitions on a big Power Systems machine. If these partitions need to communicate, whether they are running analytics, simulation, or back-end business applications, the memory bus on these machines is considerably faster than 56 Gb/sec Infiniband or 40 Gb/sec Ethernet. The thing to remember is that the applications have to be sensitive to that communication latency, and if they are not, then a Linux cluster is the better option.

The Power IFLs will be available on November 5. Customers with existing Power 770, 780, and 795 machines can buy them if they have enough latent capacity in their machines, and obviously customers buying new machines can do so as well.

A small change that will make life easier for big Power Systems shops is enterprise pooling. IBM has allowed customers to manually move processor activations from one machine to another at the high end of the Power Systems product line. But with enterprise pooling, as long as the machines are under the control of the same console, processor activations can now move fluidly around the pool of machines without having to get IBM tech support and sales reps involved.

The enterprise pools will be available for Power 795 machines in the fourth quarter with a firmware upgrade in the system and the management console, and the plan is to make it available on the Power 770 and 780 machines in the second quarter of next year. Incidentally, only Power 770 and 780 machines with Power7+ processors will be able to participate in enterprise pools; if you have the older Power7 machines, you are out of luck unless you can get IBM to make an exception for you. If you have all the same speed processors in your pool, then you can move the processor activations without paying anything; if you move from slower processors to faster ones, IBM wants a nominal fee (worth about 5 percent of the cost of the core activation) to move to a faster core on a different machine.

Sibley says that the enterprise pools will be useful in the future when IBM ships Power8 systems, starting in the middle of next year. IBM is going to be offering upgrades from Power7+ to Power 8 processors in existing systems, and customers will be able to move processor activations from an old Power7+ machine to a new Power8 server - provided they pay the incremental upgrade fee for moving to the faster cores,