Does IBM Power7 processor announcement signal storage upgrades?

February 10, 2010 – 4:32 pm

IBM recently announced the Power7 as the latest generation of processors that the company uses in some of its mid range and high end compute servers including the iSeries and pSeries.

IBM Power7 processor wafers (chips)


What is the Power7 processor?
The Power7 is the latest generation of IBM processors (chips) that are used as the CPUs in IBM mid range and high end open systems (pSeries) for Unix (AIX) and Linux as well as for the iSeries (aka AS400 successor). Building on previous Power series processors, the Power7 increases the performance per core (CPU) along with the number of cores per socket (chip) footprint. For example, each Power7 chip that plugs into a socket on a processor card in a server can have up to 8 cores or CPUs. Note that sometimes cores are also known as micro CPUs as well as virtual CPUs not to be confused with their presented via Hypervisor abstraction.

Sometimes you may also here the term or phrase 2 way, 4 way (not to be confused with a Cincinnati style 4 way chili) or 8 way among others that refers to the number of cores on a chip. Hence, a dual 2 way would be a pair of processor chips each with 2 cores while a quad 8 way would be 4 processors chips each with 8 cores and so on.

IBM Image via IBM

IBM Power7 with up to eight cores per processor (chip)

In addition to faster and more cores in a denser footprint, there are also energy efficiency enhancements including Energy Star for enterprise servers qualification along with intelligent power management (IPM also see here) implementation. IPM is implanted in what IBM refers to as Intelligent Energy technology for turning on or off various parts of the system along with varying processor clock speeds. The benefit is when there is work to be done, get it down quickly or if there is less work, turn some cores off or slow clock speed down. This is similar to what other industry leaders including Intel have deployed with their Nehalem series of processors that also support IPM.

Additional features of the Power7 include (varies by system solutions):

  • Energy Star for server qualified providing enhanced performance and efficiency.
  • IBM Systems Director Express, Standard and Enterprise Editions for simplified management including virtualization capabilities across pools of Power servers as a single entity.
  • PowerVM (Hypervisor) virtualization for AIX, iSeries and Linux operating systems.
  • ActiveMemory enables effective memory capacity to be larger than physical memory, similar to how virtual memory works within many operating systems. The benefit is to enable a partition to have access to more memory which is important for virtual machines along with the ability to support more partitions in a given physical memory footprint.
  • TurboCore and Intelligent Threads enable workload optimization by selecting the applicable mode for the work to be done. For example, single thread per core along with simultaneous threads (2 or 4) modes per core. The trade off is to have more threads per core for concurrent processing, or, fewer threads to boost single stream performance.

IBM has announced several Power7 enabled or based server system models with various numbers of processors and cores along with standalone and clustered configurations including:
IBM Image via IBM

IBM Power7 family of server systems

  • Power 750 Express, 4U server with one to four socket server supporting up to 32 cores (3.0 to 3.5 GHz) and 128 threads (4 threads per core), PowerVM (Hypervisor) along with main memory capacity of 512GB or 1TByte of virtual memory using Active Memory Expansion.
  • Power 755, 32 3.3Ghz Power7 cores (8 cores per processor) with memory up to 256GB along with AltiVec and VSX SIMD instruction set support. Up to 64 755 nodes each with 32 cores can be clustered together for high performance applications.
  • Power 770, Up to 64 Power7 cores providing more performance while consuming less energy per core compared to previous Power6 generations. Support for up to 2TB of main memory or RAM using 32GB DIMM when available later in 2010.
  • Power 780, 64 Power7 cores with TurboCore workload optimization providing performance boost per core. With TurboCore, 64 cores can operate at 3.8 GHz, or, enable up to 32 cores at 4.1 GHz and twice the amount of cache when more speed per thread is needed. Support for up to 2TB of main memory or RAM using 32GB DIMM when available later in 2010.

Additional Power7 specifications and details can be found here.


What is the DS8000?
The DS8000 is the latest generation of a family of high end enterprise class storage systems supporting IBM mainframe (zSeries), Open systems along with mixed workloads. Being high end open systems or mainframe, the DS8000 competes with similar systems from EMC (Symmetrix/DMX/VMAX), Fujitsu (Eternus DX8000), HDS (Hitachi) and HP (XP series OEM from Hitachi). Previous generations of the DS8000 (aka predecessors) include the ESS (Enterprise Storage System) Model 2105 (aka Shark) and VSS (Versatile Storage Server). Current generation family members include the Power5 based DS8100 and DS8300 along with the Power6 based DS8700.

IBM DS8000 Storage System

Learn more about the DS8000 here, here, here and here.


What is the association between the Power7 and DS8000?
Disclosure: Before I go any further, lets be clear on something, what I am about to post on is based entirely on researching, analyzing, correlating (connecting the dots) of what is publicly and freely available from IBM on the Web (e.g. there is no NDA material being disclosed here that I am aware of) along with prior trends and tendency of IBM and their solutions. In other words, you can call it speculation, a prediction, industry analysis perspective, looking into the proverbial crystal ball or educated guess and thus should not be taken as an indicator of what IBM may actually do or be working on. As to what may actually be done or not done, for that you will need to contact one of the IBM truth squad members.

As to what is the linkage between Power7 and the DS8000?

The linkage between the Power7 and the DS8000 is just that, the Power processors!

At the heart of the DS8000 are Power series processors coupled or clustered together in pairs for performance and availability that run IBM developed storage systems software. While the spin doctors may not agree, essentially the DS8000 and its predecessors are based on and around Power series processors clustered together with a high speed interconnect that combine to host an operating system and IBM developed storage system application software.

Thus IBM has been able to for over a decade leverage technology improvement curve advantages with faster processors, increased memory and I/O connectivity in denser footprints while enhancing their storage system application software.

Given that the current DS8000 family members utilize 2 way (2 core) or 4 way (4 core) Power5 and Power6 processors, similar to how their predecessors utilized previous generation Power4, Power3 and so forth processors, it only makes sense that IBM might possibly use a Power7 processor in a future DS8000 (or derivative perhaps even with a different name or model number). Again, this is just based all on historical trends and patterns of IBM storage systems group leveraging the latest generation of Power processors; after all, they are a large customer of the Power systems group.

Consequently it would make sense for IBM storage folks to leverage the new Power7 processors and features similar to how EMC is leveraging Intel processor enhances along with what other vendors are doing.

There is certainly room in the DS8000 architecture for growth in terms of supporting additional nodes or complexes or controllers (or whatever your term preference of choice is for describing a server) each equipped with multiple processors (chips or sockets) that have multiple cores. While IBM has only commercially released two complex or dual server versions of the DS8000 with various numbers of cores per server, they have come nowhere close to their architecture limit of nodes. In fact with this release of Power7, as an example, the model 755 can be clustered via InfiniBand with up to 64 nodes, with each node having 4 sockets (e.g. 4 way) with up to 8 cores each. That means on paper, 64 x 4 x 8 = 2048 cores and each core could have up to 4 threads for concurrency, or half as many cores for more cache performance. Now will IBM ever come out with a 64 node DS8000 on steroids?

Tough to say, maybe possibly some day to play specmanship vs EMC VMAX 256 node architectural limit, however Im not holding my breath just yet. Thus with more and faster cores per processor, ability to increase number of processors per server or node, along with architectural capabilities to boost the number of nodes in an instance or cluster, on paper alone, there is lots of head room for the DS8000 or a future derivative.

What about software and functionality, sure IBM could in theory simply turn the crank and use a new hardware platform that is faster, more capacity, denser, better energy efficiency, however what about new features?

Can IBM enhance its storage systems application software that it evolved from the ESS with new features to leverage underlying hardware capabilities including TurboCore, PowerVM, device and I/O sharing, Intelligent Energy efficiency along with threads enhancements?

Can IBM leverage those and other features to support not only scaling of performance, availability, capacity and energy efficiency in an economical manner, however also add features for advanced automated tiering or data movement plus other popular industry buzzword functionality?


Additional thoughts and perspectives
One of the things I find interesting is that some IBM folks along with their channel partners will go to great lengths to explain why and how the DS8000 is not just a pair of Power enabled based servers tightly coupled together. Yet, on the other hand, some of those folks will go to great lengths touting the advantages of leveraging off the shelf or commercial enabled servers based on Intel or AMD based systems such as IBMs own XIV storage solution.

I can understand in the past when the likes of EMC, Hitachi and Fujitsu were all competing with IBM building bigger and more function rich monolithic systems, however that trend is shifting. The trend now as is being seen with EMC and VMAX is to decouple and leverage more off the shelf commercially available technology combined with custom ASICs where and when needed.

Thus at a time where more attention and discussion is around clustered, grid, scalable storage systems, will we see or hear the IBM folks change their tune about the architectural scale up and out capabilities of the Power enabled DS8000 family?

There had been some industry speculation that the DS8000 would be the end of the line if the Power7 had not been released which will now (assuming that IBM leverages the Power7 for storage) shift to if there will be a Power8 or Power9 and so forth.

From a storage perspective, is the DS8K still relevant?

I say yes given its installed base and need for IBM to have an enterprise solution (sorry, IMHO XIV does not fit that bill just yet) of their own, lest they cut an OEM deal with the likes of Hitachi or Fujitsu which while possible, I do not see it as likely near term. Another soft point on its relevance is to gauge reaction from their competitors including EMC and HDS.

From a server perspective, what is the benefit of the new Power7 enabled servers from IBM?

Simple, increase scale of performance for single thread as well as concurrent or parallel application workloads.

In other words, supporting more web sites, partitions for virtual machines and guest operating system instances, databases, compute and other applications that demand performance and economy of scale.

This also means that IBM has a platform to aggressively go after Sun Solaris server customers with a lifeline during the Oracle transition, not to mention being a platform for running Oracle in addition to its own UDB/DB2 database. In addition to being a platform for Unix AIX as well as Linux, the Power7 series also are at the heart of current generation iSeries (the server formerly known as the AS400).

Additional links and resources:

Closing comments (for now):
Given IBMs history of following a Power chip enhancement with a new upgraded version of the DS8000 (or ESS/2105 aka Shark/VSS) and its predecessors by a reasonable amount of time, I would be surprised if we do not see a new DS8000 (perhaps even renamed or renumbered) within the year.

This is similar to how other vendors leverage new processor chip technology evolution to pace their systems upgrades for example how many vendors who leverage Intel processes have done announcements over the past year since the Nehalem series rolled out including EMC among others.

Lets see what the IBM truth squads have to say, or, not have to say :)

Ok, nuff said.

Cheers gs

Greg Schulz – Author Cloud and Virtual Data Storage Networking (CRC Press), The Green and Virtual Data Center (CRC Press) and Resilient Storage Networks (Elsevier)
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