IBM Sets Stage for Cloud Computing with POWER9 in 2017

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IBM’s public discussion of its POWER processor roadmap shows that there will be scale-out and scale-up versions, starting with POWER9 in 2017. Key workloads for POWER9 will include cloud computing, visualization and HPC for scale-out servers, and transactional workloads and advanced Big Data analytics for scale-up servers.

The scale-out versions will support intensive cloud computing from hyperscale cloud providers like Google and Rackspace, both of which are active members of the OpenPOWER Foundation, and both companies have said they will leverage POWER processors as part of their datacenter infrastructure.

The scale-up versions will support enterprise on-prem computing, including traditional transactional and database workloads that have been running on POWER-based Unix and Linux servers for many years.


Telling the Story with a Roadmap

Disclosures about the roadmap began at the OpenPOWER Summit in April, and continued with this week’s technology update by IBM Distinguished Engineer Josh Friedrich. Importantly, these disclosures set the stage for long-term design partnerships with hyperscale cloud providers and OpenPOWER partners, including OEM systems in China and Japan, in the future.

For many years, people have asked how IBM could continue to design and manufacture its POWER processors, originally used in IBM AS/400 and IBM Unix systems in the 1990s. The answer, in the form of leveraged co-design, has been slowly taking shape in recent years:

  • IBM is working directly with Nvidia to enable accelerated computing using high-speed links (NVLink) between Nvidia’s GPUs and IBM’s POWER processors.
  • IBM POWER processors are now manufactured/fabricated by GlobalFoundries (an AMD spinoff), rather than being manufactured inside IBM at its former East Fishkill, NY, and Burlington, VT, IBM facilities.
  • IBM is working closely with OpenPOWER partners that will leverage the POWER9 designs in their own processors built on POWER architecture.
  • Input from hyperscale providers, high performance computing (HPC) sites and deep analytics sites – including IBM Watson analytics services – is informing the POWER9 design for multiple workload sweet spots.


Will POWER Live?

The roadmap alone suggests that POWER will outlive older industry expectations that it would have ended by now. The 25-year history of POWER began with three separate builds of processors for PCs, workstations, and enterprise computing. By the Year 2000, IBM had merged multiple versions into POWER4/POWER4+ and POWER5 – and brought new designs with POWER6 in 2007, POWER7 in 2010, and POWER8 in 2014.

Why will there be scale-out (SO) and scale-up (SU) design points for POWER? What works for highly distributed, scale-out computing in large clusters of small systems doesn’t necessarily work for scale-up systems for financial transactions, extremely large single-system-image databases and older applications.

For hyperscale cloud computing, POWER processors will be used, but not seen, by end-users. High I/O rates, and acceleration of on-chip data transfers will be extremely important for cloud workloads, as will on-chip cryptography accelerators for security. For scale-up computing, expanded memory capacity and high-throughput data links will support Big Data analytics, and the on-chip acceleration and security features will handle large datasets quickly.

The first POWER9 processors are scheduled to ship in 2017 – and there is even a POWER10 processor on the roadmap, which is mentioned for the year 2020. That alone would be surprising to those who had predicted that the POWER roadmap would end in the early 2000s, when IBM was third in the worldwide Unix market.


Competition in the Processor World

Competition was intense in the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) server world in the 1990s, when IBM was in a three-way race with HP and Sun Microsystems for Unix/RISC systems. After Oracle acquired Sun in 2010, Oracle continued to evolve Sun’s SPARC RISC processors for engineered systems. Fujitsu Ltd. has its own version of SPARC processors, and manufactures them in Japan.

The longest, and strongest, competitor for RISC processors is the Intel x86 processor products, across enterprise and cloud workloads. Intel’s x86 chips predominate throughout enterprise datacenters, due to their high volume shipments, extensive features, their support for a broad range of workloads, and adoption across a large ecosystem of OEM vendors (e.g. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Supermicro and many others).


What to Expect in 2017-2018

IBM is developing POWER9 to support the next generation of scale-out and scale-up workloads for servers. Even so, it’s significant that POWER is no longer limited to IBM’s Power Systems footprint. Instead, we now know that POWER9, and OpenPOWER implementations produced by other companies, will be shipped throughout this decade, often unseen by end-customers, as engines for cloud computing and analytics.

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