Overview

Summary points

A Creative Intellect Consulting Commentary Report

For two decades, IBM’s Power computing division has occupied that space between System x and System z which was traditionally occupied by the mini-computer. With the sale of the System x business to Lenovo, IBM is repositioning POWER to be a primary processor for those customers who use Linux, especially those who need to compute intensive workloads, such as big data, analytics and cloud.

The announcement by members of the OpenPOWER Foundation that they are building alternatives to IBM’s own hardware, promises a multi-vendor hardware market. This means that Power Systems is no longer an IBM only play, and with Google using POWER to build its next generation of hyper-scale servers that it has designed, now is the time for corporate IT to take another look at Power and what it offers. In this report, we look at what IBM is delivering with POWER8 and the promise of what is to come.

IBM Power computing: from niche to commonplace

In the late 1980s IBM released the first version of their RISC architecture for mid-range workstations and servers. The formation of the AIM (Apple, IBM, Motorola) alliance opened the platform up for a while, but eventually IBM took complete control at the end of the 1990s. Since then, IBM has concentrated on Power as its mid-range AIX, IBM i and data analytics platform.

The launch of the POWER8 processor, however, changes things substantially. IBM has ensured that the processor is capable of running little-endian Linux. This is the same version of Linux that runs on Intel chipsets and it means that any Linux application that now runs on Intel also runs on Power. This includes Linux desktop, Apache webserver, Apache OpenOffi, MySQL, HADOOP, SugarCRM, Pentaho Business Analytics; the list is huge. In fact, Canonical, owners of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, have announced that it took them just 160 days to get 40,000 Linux applications running on Power. Under any spotlight this is impressive: but none more so than for those looking to take advantage of the operational performance and architecture of a processor that delivers superior parallel processing and faster memory retrieval for data analytical workloads.

It is not just Linux that is changing the Power software story. Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing solution, runs on POWER and IBM has invested $1 billion to help Watson develop new markets in big data and analytics, which will help drive sales of POWER processor-based systems. IBM has already announced a suite of new Watson analytical applications that are available to companies working on complex data analytics.

At the same time, IBM has again opened up POWER to a wider consortium, known as the OpenPOWER Foundation. It has attracted a wide range of OEMs who are already delivering products based on the POWER Architecture that IBM has open sourced. An example of the success here is Google, who has produced its own POWER processor-based motherboard geared for compute intensive, hyperscale servers.

If this were not evidence enough of a processor moving from a niche environment to commonplace, IBM has committed SoftLayer, its cloud service provider, to take Power as part of its processing mix. With Linux being the largest operating system on cloud, and with IBM’s commitment to open source projects, such as OpenStack, this appears to be a sensible move.

Understanding the POWER8 Factor

To understand why POWER8 is a significant threat to an x86 dominated processor market, it is necessary to do comparisons between processors and architectures, as shown by Table 1 below.

As can be seen, the POWER8 chip has a high clock speed, more threads, has more on-board cache and can access memory much faster than either Intel’s latest x86 processor or AMD’s latest ARM processor. For workloads, such as data analytics, where the ability to do massively parallel processing is critical, POWER8 has 96 threads per socket and can fetch data from memory faster than its competitors. This is a crucial benefit that those looking to get more for their dollars need to take note of.

1. A processor architected for key workloads

One of the reasons for IBM developing Power in the late 1980s, was the need to find a new processor for its mid range mini-computers. It needed a processor capable of delivering the compute intensive workloads of the time, such as high-end data processing and mathematical modelling. For IBM customers who were dealing with Gigabytes, and even Terabytes of storage back then, that meant moving away from the emerging Intel server market. With POWER8, IBM has continued that development, as figure 1 outlines.

The processor is the same size as a POWER7 processor and consumes the same amount of power. Yet it has twice the number of cores and threads as a POWER7 processor. In effect, POWER8 is the equivalent of two POWER7 processors in the same package. For the type of workloads that IBM is targeting, such as big data analytics and cloud, the capabilities inside the processor are critical.

By having eight threads per processor core, POWER8 is able to deliver parallel processing of data queries. This means it is able to resolve queries faster than other processor architectures.

POWER8 is able to access up to 2 Terabytes of memory in the S824 and 16TB on the E880 of memory. For in-memory databases, this allows it to access more data than other processors, which also improves the performance of the parallel processing, because there is less time spent waiting for data to be brought into memory. To further improve performance, the memory bandwidth is up to six times faster than other processor architectures.

A new technology that IBM has added to POWER8 is CAPI (Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface). Many computer architectures are constrained by the speed of the internal IO due to the combination of the system bus and the need for all requests to go through the operating system. With CAPI, hardware can be configured to talk directly to the processor and not be slowed by the operating system.

Where this will deliver benefits for POWER8 is in big data analytics and the types of work that IBM Watson delivers. Instead of data stored on flash memory, having to be brought into memory via the operating system, CAPI allows the processor to talk directly to the flash drives and use them as an extension of its own memory. This means that data being cached for in-memory databases can be accessed faster than on any other platform.

Ultimately, when it comes to accessing the compute requirements for high value analytics, POWER8 delivers a weighty punch for a price to performance ratio that cannot be ignored.

Making a case for transition

Processor capabilities mean nothing if it is used for the wrong workload. POWER8 is not designed to be a general purpose computing processor to be installed in file and print servers. Instead, there are key workloads and software where it will deliver the performance and cost savings expected of it. But just as vital is an ability to effectively and efficiently support investments already made, while demonstrating areas of gain. Four specific areas are outlined below that raise the opportunities for POWER8, both within the market and the industry at large.

2. Little-endian Linux means no need for x86

One of the most important and radical workload changes that POWER8 brings is support for little-endian Linux. This version of Linux is the same as that which runs on x86 processors, rather than the specialized Linux that runs on previous generations of Power and System z mainframes. What this means for customers who currently have large Linux installations is that they do not need to port or rewrite their Linux applications in order to move them to POWER8.

The impact of this is best demonstrated by Canonical, who is responsible for the Ubuntu Linux distribution. The company, as mentioned earlier, has taken a number of its open source applications, ranging from simple utilities to complex CRM suites and were able to show them all running on POWER8. There was no requirement to alter code or recompile any more than there would be moving between standard versions of Linux on x86. For customers, this means that any Linux application they are currently using inside their enterprise can now run on POWER8, without any additional cost or development.

Canonical are not the only major Linux provider to support POWER8 and little-endian Linux. SUSE has announced that SUSE Enterprise Linux is now available for POWER8 and Red Hat has already committed support in RHEL 7.1. These will not only bring more enterprise Linux users to POWER8 but will also bring more third-party software providers. The net result is to fully establish POWER8 as a multi-vendor Linux platform.

POWER8 is not designed to be a general purpose computing processor to be installed in file and print servers.

3. IBM porting its own Linux applications to POWER8

At the same time, IBM is busy working through its own library of Linux applications and moving those across to POWER8. When the processor launched, there were 157 Linux applications available, which represents about 80% of the key revenue generating applications supported by the IBM Software Division.

157 applications may not sound like many, but these are not simple applications. In many cases, they are application suites comprising a large number of smaller Linux applications, all of which needed to be ported to the platform, tested and documented before launch. Over the next year, IBM Software will be looking to move the rest of the IBM Linux library to POWER8.

4. Watson brings its own application suites to the platform

IBM Watson, the cognitive computing solution designed by IBM, is perhaps still best known for appearing on a US game show where it beat a number of previous champions. One of the key proving environments for Watson to date has been the medical industry. IBM has used the analytical capabilities of Watson to ingest large amounts of structured and semi-structured data and then, using its cognitive computing engine, learn about that data. This has made it ideal for environments where previously it would have taken several data scientists to develop the necessary queries to extract key information from the data.

As part of the Watson spin-off, it has developed complex analytical solutions that take advantage of the POWER8 processor and architecture. This is not just a solution for customers with vast data sets. The Watson analytical applications are being offered as cloud applications on POWER8, through IBM SoftLayer.

The first deployment of IBM Watson Content Store has been in the SoftLayer data centre in the UK. IBM is also due to launch a number of vertical market solutions for Watson in the next year including specialized analytical solutions for medical research.

5. Commodity cloud pricing for complex computing applications

One of the challenges in the cloud market is how to deliver virtual machines (VMs) at the lowest possible price. In many scenarios, this is achieved by reducing the compute, memory and networking capability of the VMs to a point where they are limited in what they can do.

With POWER8, little-endian-Linux and Watson, IBM SoftLayer believes it can compete with traditional public cloud offerings by delivering specialized cloud services around complex data analytics.

With companies looking closely at the CAPEX saving from cloud, this ability to deliver RISC-based cloud computing at commodity pricing is something that, at present, only IBM can do. Several cloud service providers including OVH, a new OpenPOWER Foundation member and one of the largest hosting companies in the world have already committed to deploying POWER8 servers into their environment. This is in addition to OpenPOWER Foundation member Google, showing its hyperscale POWER8 motherboard.

With POWER8 supporting little-endian Linux, IBM is targeting those service providers and customers who have large, cloud-based x86 based Linux installations.

Getting POWER8 into the cloud is a major step for IBM. Greater Cloud deployment on POWER8 will show market acceptance of the technology. Success will also mean going beyond the announcements of deploying Power and Watson onto the SoftLayer stack. It will require IBM to be more focused with its messaging.

Clarity for the IBM Server Platforms positioning for the cloud

Over the last two years, IBM has been pushing System x, Power and System z at the cloud. Each has a different price point for entry, a different price point per VM and a different level of cost. Recently IBM has been touting System z as being the only platform capable of delivering Linux VMs at $1 per day. The challenge for System z, however, is that it is a specialist version of Linux and although IBM has made sales to cloud providers, it does require software to be rewritten.

With POWER8 supporting little-endian Linux, IBM is targeting those service providers and customers who have large, cloud-based x86 based Linux installations. The company is looking to show that moving from x86 to POWER8 is not about porting or rewriting applications, but just about moving the code to a new machine. The most obvious approach will be to sell this as an update, rather than an alternative platform.

What will make this easier is support for the open source OpenStack software on POWER8. Customers running IBM solutions on x86 are already likely to be using OpenStack, so incorporating POWER8 into their cloud environments should be smooth. A key metric of success has already been achieved with the adoption of Power by several cloud service providers.

OpenPOWER Foundation key to democratizing the POWER technology

The creation of the OpenPOWER Foundation in 2013 was a major step forward for IBM. Not since the disbandment of the AIM alliance has IBM sought to open up the POWER architecture to other companies. With the OpenPOWER Foundation, IBM has made all the Intellectual Property (IP) around POWER available to third parties. More important than that, it has open sourced that IP, allowing Foundation members to do their own development of the architecture and even the POWER processor itself.

This is a move not without some degree of risk. IBM knows only too well the history of Unix and how quickly different vendors, itself included, forked the code and effectively created incompatibilities between different versions of Unix. That said, with Power, IBM will know that when a chip manufacturer wants to add new features, it must be provided under a similar style of license as open source software. This will allow any changes and enhancements to be made available to all Foundation members, thereby limiting the potential for forking and future interoperability issues.

6. The reassurance of influential backers of POWER8

IBM has already had success in attracting Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to the OpenPOWER Foundation. Since the launch of the POWER8 processor, IBM claims to be talking to at least one new potential member of the Foundation per day. A number of those OEMs are based in China, where there is significant interest and investment in creating new platforms for what is the fastest growing market for computing in the world.

The key metric for any form of foundation is deliverables. At the launch of the POWER8 processor at the end of April 2014, Tyan, a leading Taiwanese manufacturer of servers, showed off a reference design for developers to enable them to build applications. In October, Tyan announced that the reference systems was now available to ship to developers.

The key metric for any form of foundation is deliverables.

Google has also demonstrated its own reference design for hyperscale processors, based on POWER8. The importance of Google’s commitment to POWER8 should not go unnoticed by large enterprises. Google is in a cloud computing price war, where everything has to deliver more for less money. For Google to make the investment in building its own motherboards around POWER8, it shows that in hyperscale environments, Google believes Power can deliver something other platforms cannot.

NVIDIA is another early partner who, having worked with IBM, has already delivered its products on OpenPOWER (specifically on the POWER8 model S824L). Using its NVLink software, the company is working with IBM to deliver access to Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to speed up complex analytics on the POWER8 platform. This work is being done as part of NVIDIA’s membership of OpenPOWER and provides an alternative to IBM’s CAPI interface for high-speed connectivity between system components.

This is not the only OpenPOWER-based work that NVIDIA is involved in. It has joined with IBM and the Jülich Supercomputing Center in Germany to create a new competency center. The goal is to advance and create new research applications on GPU-accelerated OpenPOWER systems. Much of the work will be in the High Performance Computing (HPC) space where the ability of GPUs to resolve physics based problems much faster than traditional CPUs is key to commercial and research success.

Servergy Inc has opened the first Open Computer POWER8 Solution Laboratory to bring OpenPOWER based systems and the Open Compute Project together. The target market is to create commodity priced servers based on POWER8 that will appeal to Big Data and HPC customers.

IBM is moving closer to the announcement of white label servers via partners in the OpenPOWER Foundation. There is a risk of cannibalizing the market when this happens, but the most important thing is that it will give cloud and other service providers choice over who they buy hardware from. At that point, IBM will be able to say it has created a viable ecosystem around OpenPOWER.

Channel partners will be essential for maintaining momentum

One of the challenges for IBM with Power will be restructuring its channel to address the new opportunities it has now created. One part of that channel story is the existing partners with extensive investment in Power, AIX and building custom solutions. These are the partners that already know the platform and what customers expect, and IBM will be looking to given them the tools to exploit the emergence of Power, as part of the cloud and the new capabilities that IBM Watson can deliver.

The other part of the channel story is IBM’s existing System x partners. Some of those partners will be happy to transfer their business to Lenovo, because they see the x86 market as their home. They may have customers and workloads running on other operating systems. However, there will be other partners who have a need to deliver x86, but who will see the potential in taking advantage of the POWER8 processor, especially for workloads such as big data analytics.

There are other partners who see their relationship with IBM as something that they want to keep. Both they and their customers identify themselves as IBM partners and customers. It is as much about trust in a supplier relationship, as it is belief that IBM is the right company to solve their complex IT problems. In this group of partners, IBM will find a lot of willingness to transition to understanding Power and what it offers.

This is also a group that is likely to have intimate experience of the complex systems of their customers in key vertical markets such as finance, pharmaceutical, aerospace and defense, to name a few. IBM will see this as an opportunity to help them use that system and application knowledge to create new application patterns.

Irrespective of which group of partners IBM is addressing, the company knows that it needs to put more investment into its channel program, to ensure that all partners can see and achieve clear benefits. Over the past three years, IBM has done a lot of restructuring of its partner programs to meet new technology demands, such as big data, cloud, mobile and security. The company has vertically and horizontally grouped partners and in return these partners have invested heavily with IBM in order to be a part of what IBM is doing.

IBM has now gone a step further, by making the investment itself in helping those partners make the transition to Power. This sees IBM introducing “specialty” programs for Power Systems that addresses the needs for improved skills and provides greater support and investment for qualifying partners.

Ramping up its education program to raise POWER8 usage knowledge

One major customer concern will be a lack of knowledge around Power and its infrastructure. By bringing across software, especially management tools, that customers already know, much of this concern goes away. IBM has begun to step up its education programmes for Power in the same way as it has done for System z. It has created a series of contests for students from all levels of education and these will run twice yearly.

At the same time, IBM’s educational team is looking at delivering Power, rather than x86, into new solutions. With Linux and open source prevalent in these environments, it should be seen as a good opportunity, not only to prove the technology, but also to ensure that Power is seen as a viable and sustainable competitor to x86 for key workloads.

Over the past three years, IBM has done a lot of restructuring of its partner programs to meet new technology demands, such as big data, cloud, mobile and security.

Customers get the best of both worlds

By bringing together all of its traditional Power market and combining that with commodity workloads, IBM is seeking to convince customers that Power is a real replacement for their existing infrastructure and cloud requirements.

Little-endian Linux, AIX, big data analytics, cloud, Watson – these are all technologies that customers are either using or which fit many of their needs today and going forward into the future. The proof by Canonical that moving existing open source Linux to Power is easy by porting 40,000 applications in 160 days is significant. IBM expects similar announcements from the owners of other Linux distributions in the next few months.

But for many customers there is still a concern that Power might just be an IBM owned or dominated play and they could find themselves locked in to a platform. The success of OpenPOWER will be key to dispelling this concern and with Tyan and Google already showing their reference boards, customers should be able to see this as a multi-vendor play.

Some customers will point to the AIM Alliance and the fact that it didn’t last, but that was created at a time when there was no demand, and when everything had to be written specifically for the POWERPC chipset. This held back the availability of software packages, which is not the case with the current generation of Power.

There is no doubt, in our opinion that IBM needs to focus on getting customers to start trialing Power servers and delivering Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA) numbers. This is because the cost from a hardware perspective looks very high compared to commodity computing, and without the key proof that the cost of workloads is lower, due to the capabilities of the chipset and underlying architecture, customers will be wary.

Conclusion

The changes IBM has made with the POWER8 processor are bold and far reaching. Would it have done this is if it had retained the System x division? Possibly; but by selling off that division it provided the opportunity for IBM to reposition the POWER Architecture and address the little endian Linux market. This one step will help to move POWER8 into the wider computing market. Parallel to the POWER8 changes, the decision to open a lot of the POWER8 intellectual property via the OpenPOWER Foundation has already yielded results. IBM has gained traction in China and persuaded Google to build a new generation of hyperscale servers on Power. There is still some work to be done to build out the OpenPOWER ecosystem, but IBM has laid a firm foundation on which it, and the broad end user market, channel partners and service providers, can now build upon.

Creative Intellect Consulting is an analyst research, advisory and consulting firm focused on software development, delivery and lifecycle management across the Software and IT spectrum along with their impact on, and alignment with, business. Read more about our services and reports at www.creativeintellectuk.com

Overview

A Creative Intellect Consulting Commentary Report

For two decades, IBM’s Power computing division has occupied that space between System x and System z which was traditionally occupied by the mini-computer. With the sale of the System x business to Lenovo, IBM is repositioning POWER to be a primary processor for those customers who use Linux, especially those who need to compute intensive workloads, such as big data, analytics and cloud.

The announcement by members of the OpenPOWER Foundation that they are building alternatives to IBM’s own hardware, promises a multi-vendor hardware market. This means that Power Systems is no longer an IBM only play, and with Google using POWER to build its next generation of hyper-scale servers that it has designed, now is the time for corporate IT to take another look at Power and what it offers. In this report, we look at what IBM is delivering with POWER8 and the promise of what is to come.

Summary points

IBM Power computing: from niche to commonplace

In the late 1980s IBM released the first version of their RISC architecture for mid-range workstations and servers. The formation of the AIM (Apple, IBM, Motorola) alliance opened the platform up for a while, but eventually IBM took complete control at the end of the 1990s. Since then, IBM has concentrated on Power as its mid-range AIX, IBM i and data analytics platform.

The launch of the POWER8 processor, however, changes things substantially. IBM has ensured that the processor is capable of running little-endian Linux. This is the same version of Linux that runs on Intel chipsets and it means that any Linux application that now runs on Intel also runs on Power. This includes Linux desktop, Apache webserver, Apache OpenOffi, MySQL, HADOOP, SugarCRM, Pentaho Business Analytics; the list is huge. In fact, Canonical, owners of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, have announced that it took them just 160 days to get 40,000 Linux applications running on Power. Under any spotlight this is impressive: but none more so than for those looking to take advantage of the operational performance and architecture of a processor that delivers superior parallel processing and faster memory retrieval for data analytical workloads.

It is not just Linux that is changing the Power software story. Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing solution, runs on POWER and IBM has invested $1 billion to help Watson develop new markets in big data and analytics, which will help drive sales of POWER processor-based systems. IBM has already announced a suite of new Watson analytical applications that are available to companies working on complex data analytics.

At the same time, IBM has again opened up POWER to a wider consortium, known as the OpenPOWER Foundation. It has attracted a wide range of OEMs who are already delivering products based on the POWER Architecture that IBM has open sourced. An example of the success here is Google, who has produced its own POWER processor-based motherboard geared for compute intensive, hyperscale servers.

If this were not evidence enough of a processor moving from a niche environment to commonplace, IBM has committed SoftLayer, its cloud service provider, to take Power as part of its processing mix. With Linux being the largest operating system on cloud, and with IBM’s commitment to open source projects, such as OpenStack, this appears to be a sensible move.

Understanding the POWER8 Factor

To understand why POWER8 is a significant threat to an x86 dominated processor market, it is necessary to do comparisons between processors and architectures, as shown by Table 1 below.

As can be seen, the POWER8 chip has a high clock speed, more threads, has more on-board cache and can access memory much faster than either Intel’s latest x86 processor or AMD’s latest ARM processor. For workloads, such as data analytics, where the ability to do massively parallel processing is critical, POWER8 has 96 threads per socket and can fetch data from memory faster than its competitors. This is a crucial benefit that those looking to get more for their dollars need to take note of.

1. A processor architected for key workloads

One of the reasons for IBM developing Power in the late 1980s, was the need to find a new processor for its mid range mini-computers. It needed a processor capable of delivering the compute intensive workloads of the time, such as high-end data processing and mathematical modelling. For IBM customers who were dealing with Gigabytes, and even Terabytes of storage back then, that meant moving away from the emerging Intel server market. With POWER8, IBM has continued that development, as figure 1 outlines.

Ultimately, when it comes to accessing the compute requirements for high value analytics, POWER8 delivers a weighty punch for a price to performance ratio that cannot be ignored.

The processor is the same size as a POWER7 processor and consumes the same amount of power. Yet it has twice the number of cores and threads as a POWER7 processor. In effect, POWER8 is the equivalent of two POWER7 processors in the same package. For the type of workloads that IBM is targeting, such as big data analytics and cloud, the capabilities inside the processor are critical.

By having eight threads per processor core, POWER8 is able to deliver parallel processing of data queries. This means it is able to resolve queries faster than other processor architectures.

POWER8 is able to access up to 2 Terabytes of memory in the S824 and 16TB on the E880 of memory. For in-memory databases, this allows it to access more data than other processors, which also improves the performance of the parallel processing, because there is less time spent waiting for data to be brought into memory. To further improve performance, the memory bandwidth is up to six times faster than other processor architectures.

A new technology that IBM has added to POWER8 is CAPI (Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface). Many computer architectures are constrained by the speed of the internal IO due to the combination of the system bus and the need for all requests to go through the operating system. With CAPI, hardware can be configured to talk directly to the processor and not be slowed by the operating system.

Where this will deliver benefits for POWER8 is in big data analytics and the types of work that IBM Watson delivers. Instead of data stored on flash memory, having to be brought into memory via the operating system, CAPI allows the processor to talk directly to the flash drives and use them as an extension of its own memory. This means that data being cached for in-memory databases can be accessed faster than on any other platform.

Making a case for transition

Processor capabilities mean nothing if it is used for the wrong workload. POWER8 is not designed to be a general purpose computing processor to be installed in file and print servers. Instead, there are key workloads and software where it will deliver the performance and cost savings expected of it. But just as vital is an ability to effectively and efficiently support investments already made, while demonstrating areas of gain. Four specific areas are outlined below that raise the opportunities for POWER8, both within the market and the industry at large.

2. Little-endian Linux means no need for x86

One of the most important and radical workload changes that POWER8 brings is support for little-endian Linux. This version of Linux is the same as that which runs on x86 processors, rather than the specialized Linux that runs on previous generations of Power and System z mainframes. What this means for customers who currently have large Linux installations is that they do not need to port or rewrite their Linux applications in order to move them to POWER8.

The impact of this is best demonstrated by Canonical, who is responsible for the Ubuntu Linux distribution. The company, as mentioned earlier, has taken a number of its open source applications, ranging from simple utilities to complex CRM suites and were able to show them all running on POWER8. There was no requirement to alter code or recompile any more than there would be moving between standard versions of Linux on x86. For customers, this means that any Linux application they are currently using inside their enterprise can now run on POWER8, without any additional cost or development.

Canonical are not the only major Linux provider to support POWER8 and little-endian Linux. SUSE has announced that SUSE Enterprise Linux is now available for POWER8 and Red Hat has already committed support in RHEL 7.1. These will not only bring more enterprise Linux users to POWER8 but will also bring more third-party software providers. The net result is to fully establish POWER8 as a multi-vendor Linux platform.

POWER8 is not designed to be a general purpose computing processor to be installed in file and print servers.

3. IBM porting its own Linux applications to POWER8

At the same time, IBM is busy working through its own library of Linux applications and moving those across to POWER8. When the processor launched, there were 157 Linux applications available, which represents about 80% of the key revenue generating applications supported by the IBM Software Division.

157 applications may not sound like many, but these are not simple applications. In many cases, they are application suites comprising a large number of smaller Linux applications, all of which needed to be ported to the platform, tested and documented before launch. Over the next year, IBM Software will be looking to move the rest of the IBM Linux library to POWER8.

4. Watson brings its own application suites to the platform

IBM Watson, the cognitive computing solution designed by IBM, is perhaps still best known for appearing on a US game show where it beat a number of previous champions. One of the key proving environments for Watson to date has been the medical industry. IBM has used the analytical capabilities of Watson to ingest large amounts of structured and semi-structured data and then, using its cognitive computing engine, learn about that data. This has made it ideal for environments where previously it would have taken several data scientists to develop the necessary queries to extract key information from the data.

As part of the Watson spin-off, it has developed complex analytical solutions that take advantage of the POWER8 processor and architecture. This is not just a solution for customers with vast data sets. The Watson analytical applications are being offered as cloud applications on POWER8, through IBM SoftLayer.

The first deployment of IBM Watson Content Store has been in the SoftLayer data centre in the UK. IBM is also due to launch a number of vertical market solutions for Watson in the next year including specialized analytical solutions for medical research.

5. Commodity cloud pricing for complex computing applications

One of the challenges in the cloud market is how to deliver virtual machines (VMs) at the lowest possible price. In many scenarios, this is achieved by reducing the compute, memory and networking capability of the VMs to a point where they are limited in what they can do.

With POWER8, little-endian-Linux and Watson, IBM SoftLayer believes it can compete with traditional public cloud offerings by delivering specialized cloud services around complex data analytics.

With companies looking closely at the CAPEX saving from cloud, this ability to deliver RISC-based cloud computing at commodity pricing is something that, at present, only IBM can do. Several cloud service providers including OVH, a new OpenPOWER Foundation member and one of the largest hosting companies in the world have already committed to deploying POWER8 servers into their environment. This is in addition to OpenPOWER Foundation member Google, showing its hyperscale POWER8 motherboard.

With POWER8 supporting little-endian Linux, IBM is targeting those service providers and customers who have large, cloud-based x86 based Linux installations.

Getting POWER8 into the cloud is a major step for IBM. Greater Cloud deployment on POWER8 will show market acceptance of the technology. Success will also mean going beyond the announcements of deploying Power and Watson onto the SoftLayer stack. It will require IBM to be more focused with its messaging.

Clarity for the IBM Server Platforms positioning for the cloud

Over the last two years, IBM has been pushing System x, Power and System z at the cloud. Each has a different price point for entry, a different price point per VM and a different level of cost. Recently IBM has been touting System z as being the only platform capable of delivering Linux VMs at $1 per day. The challenge for System z, however, is that it is a specialist version of Linux and although IBM has made sales to cloud providers, it does require software to be rewritten.

With POWER8 supporting little-endian Linux, IBM is targeting those service providers and customers who have large, cloud-based x86 based Linux installations. The company is looking to show that moving from x86 to POWER8 is not about porting or rewriting applications, but just about moving the code to a new machine. The most obvious approach will be to sell this as an update, rather than an alternative platform.

What will make this easier is support for the open source OpenStack software on POWER8. Customers running IBM solutions on x86 are already likely to be using OpenStack, so incorporating POWER8 into their cloud environments should be smooth. A key metric of success has already been achieved with the adoption of Power by several cloud service providers.

OpenPOWER Foundation key to democratizing the POWER technology

The creation of the OpenPOWER Foundation in 2013 was a major step forward for IBM. Not since the disbandment of the AIM alliance has IBM sought to open up the POWER architecture to other companies. With the OpenPOWER Foundation, IBM has made all the Intellectual Property (IP) around POWER available to third parties. More important than that, it has open sourced that IP, allowing Foundation members to do their own development of the architecture and even the POWER processor itself.

This is a move not without some degree of risk. IBM knows only too well the history of Unix and how quickly different vendors, itself included, forked the code and effectively created incompatibilities between different versions of Unix. That said, with Power, IBM will know that when a chip manufacturer wants to add new features, it must be provided under a similar style of license as open source software. This will allow any changes and enhancements to be made available to all Foundation members, thereby limiting the potential for forking and future interoperability issues.

6. The reassurance of influential backers of POWER8

IBM has already had success in attracting Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to the OpenPOWER Foundation. Since the launch of the POWER8 processor, IBM claims to be talking to at least one new potential member of the Foundation per day. A number of those OEMs are based in China, where there is significant interest and investment in creating new platforms for what is the fastest growing market for computing in the world.

The key metric for any form of foundation is deliverables. At the launch of the POWER8 processor at the end of April 2014, Tyan, a leading Taiwanese manufacturer of servers, showed off a reference design for developers to enable them to build applications. In October, Tyan announced that the reference systems was now available to ship to developers.

The key metric for any form of foundation is deliverables.

Google has also demonstrated its own reference design for hyperscale processors, based on POWER8. The importance of Google’s commitment to POWER8 should not go unnoticed by large enterprises. Google is in a cloud computing price war, where everything has to deliver more for less money. For Google to make the investment in building its own motherboards around POWER8, it shows that in hyperscale environments, Google believes Power can deliver something other platforms cannot.

NVIDIA is another early partner who, having worked with IBM, has already delivered its products on OpenPOWER (specifically on the POWER8 model S824L). Using its NVLink software, the company is working with IBM to deliver access to Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to speed up complex analytics on the POWER8 platform. This work is being done as part of NVIDIA’s membership of OpenPOWER and provides an alternative to IBM’s CAPI interface for high-speed connectivity between system components.

This is not the only OpenPOWER-based work that NVIDIA is involved in. It has joined with IBM and the Jülich Supercomputing Center in Germany to create a new competency center. The goal is to advance and create new research applications on GPU-accelerated OpenPOWER systems. Much of the work will be in the High Performance Computing (HPC) space where the ability of GPUs to resolve physics based problems much faster than traditional CPUs is key to commercial and research success.

Servergy Inc has opened the first Open Computer POWER8 Solution Laboratory to bring OpenPOWER based systems and the Open Compute Project together. The target market is to create commodity priced servers based on POWER8 that will appeal to Big Data and HPC customers.

IBM is moving closer to the announcement of white label servers via partners in the OpenPOWER Foundation. There is a risk of cannibalizing the market when this happens, but the most important thing is that it will give cloud and other service providers choice over who they buy hardware from. At that point, IBM will be able to say it has created a viable ecosystem around OpenPOWER.

Channel partners will be essential for maintaining momentum

One of the challenges for IBM with Power will be restructuring its channel to address the new opportunities it has now created. One part of that channel story is the existing partners with extensive investment in Power, AIX and building custom solutions. These are the partners that already know the platform and what customers expect, and IBM will be looking to given them the tools to exploit the emergence of Power, as part of the cloud and the new capabilities that IBM Watson can deliver.

The other part of the channel story is IBM’s existing System x partners. Some of those partners will be happy to transfer their business to Lenovo, because they see the x86 market as their home. They may have customers and workloads running on other operating systems. However, there will be other partners who have a need to deliver x86, but who will see the potential in taking advantage of the POWER8 processor, especially for workloads such as big data analytics.

There are other partners who see their relationship with IBM as something that they want to keep. Both they and their customers identify themselves as IBM partners and customers. It is as much about trust in a supplier relationship, as it is belief that IBM is the right company to solve their complex IT problems. In this group of partners, IBM will find a lot of willingness to transition to understanding Power and what it offers.

This is also a group that is likely to have intimate experience of the complex systems of their customers in key vertical markets such as finance, pharmaceutical, aerospace and defense, to name a few. IBM will see this as an opportunity to help them use that system and application knowledge to create new application patterns.

Irrespective of which group of partners IBM is addressing, the company knows that it needs to put more investment into its channel program, to ensure that all partners can see and achieve clear benefits. Over the past three years, IBM has done a lot of restructuring of its partner programs to meet new technology demands, such as big data, cloud, mobile and security. The company has vertically and horizontally grouped partners and in return these partners have invested heavily with IBM in order to be a part of what IBM is doing.

IBM has now gone a step further, by making the investment itself in helping those partners make the transition to Power. This sees IBM introducing “specialty” programs for Power Systems that addresses the needs for improved skills and provides greater support and investment for qualifying partners.

Ramping up its education program to raise POWER8 usage knowledge

One major customer concern will be a lack of knowledge around Power and its infrastructure. By bringing across software, especially management tools, that customers already know, much of this concern goes away. IBM has begun to step up its education programmes for Power in the same way as it has done for System z. It has created a series of contests for students from all levels of education and these will run twice yearly.

At the same time, IBM’s educational team is looking at delivering Power, rather than x86, into new solutions. With Linux and open source prevalent in these environments, it should be seen as a good opportunity, not only to prove the technology, but also to ensure that Power is seen as a viable and sustainable competitor to x86 for key workloads.

Over the past three years, IBM has done a lot of restructuring of its partner programs to meet new technology demands, such as big data, cloud, mobile and security.

Customers get the best of both worlds

By bringing together all of its traditional Power market and combining that with commodity workloads, IBM is seeking to convince customers that Power is a real replacement for their existing infrastructure and cloud requirements.

Little-endian Linux, AIX, big data analytics, cloud, Watson – these are all technologies that customers are either using or which fit many of their needs today and going forward into the future. The proof by Canonical that moving existing open source Linux to Power is easy by porting 40,000 applications in 160 days is significant. IBM expects similar announcements from the owners of other Linux distributions in the next few months.

But for many customers there is still a concern that Power might just be an IBM owned or dominated play and they could find themselves locked in to a platform. The success of OpenPOWER will be key to dispelling this concern and with Tyan and Google already showing their reference boards, customers should be able to see this as a multi-vendor play.

Some customers will point to the AIM Alliance and the fact that it didn’t last, but that was created at a time when there was no demand, and when everything had to be written specifically for the POWERPC chipset. This held back the availability of software packages, which is not the case with the current generation of Power.

There is no doubt, in our opinion that IBM needs to focus on getting customers to start trialing Power servers and delivering Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA) numbers. This is because the cost from a hardware perspective looks very high compared to commodity computing, and without the key proof that the cost of workloads is lower, due to the capabilities of the chipset and underlying architecture, customers will be wary.

Conclusion

The changes IBM has made with the POWER8 processor are bold and far reaching. Would it have done this is if it had retained the System x division? Possibly; but by selling off that division it provided the opportunity for IBM to reposition the POWER Architecture and address the little endian Linux market. This one step will help to move POWER8 into the wider computing market. Parallel to the POWER8 changes, the decision to open a lot of the POWER8 intellectual property via the OpenPOWER Foundation has already yielded results. IBM has gained traction in China and persuaded Google to build a new generation of hyperscale servers on Power. There is still some work to be done to build out the OpenPOWER ecosystem, but IBM has laid a firm foundation on which it, and the broad end user market, channel partners and service providers, can now build upon.

Creative Intellect Consulting is an analyst research, advisory and consulting firm focused on software development, delivery and lifecycle management across the Software and IT spectrum along with their impact on, and alignment with, business. Read more about our services and reports at www.creativeintellectuk.com

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2014