Recent Developments: OpenPOWER's Potential HPC Comeback

Those who suggested that IBM's scale out servers were just a half-hearted effort that would quickly get strangled by the desire to protect the high margin big iron servers could not have been more wrong. IBM just launched 3 new servers, and all of them are affordable scale out servers. IBM is now very aggressively going after the market it has (almost) completely lost to Intel's Xeon: HPC. At the same time IBM is emphasizing the determination to play an important role in the emerging "machine learning" and "Big Data" market.

The S822LC "Big Data" and S821LC use mature and proven – some would say "older" – technology: the "OpenPOWER version" of the POWER8 and NVIDIA's Tesla K80. There are some interesting new facts to discuss though. First of all, these servers are made by Supermicro, confirming the close relation between the two companies and that OpenPOWER is indeed "Open". Supermicro is the market leader in the HPC market, and the fact that Supermicro chose to invest in OpenPOWER is a promissing sign: IBM is on to something, it is not another "me too" effort.

Secondly, these servers use (registered) DDR4 RAM as opposed to DDR3 as found in servers like the S812LC and SL822. Since they are still communicating via the "Centaur" memory buffers, this will not give any tangible performance boost, but it means that the servers are making use of the most popular and thus cheapest server memory technology.

The 2U S822LC "Big Data" looks like a solid offering. Pricing starts at $5999 (one 3.3 GHz 8-core, 64 GB RAM, no GPU), but realistically a full equipped server (two 10-cores, one K80, 128 GB) is around $16000. If you do not need the GPU, a server with two 10-cores, 256 GB, 2x 10 GB and two 1 TB disks costs around $13341. The CPU inside is still the 190W TDP single chip 10-core (at 2.9-3.5 GHz boost) that we tested a while ago. There is also an 8-core (3.3 - 3.7 GHz boost) alternative.

The 1U S821LC starts at $5900. The 1U form factor limits the POWER8 to much lower power envelopes. The 8-core chip runs at 2.3 GHz (135W TDP), the 10-core is allowed to consume a greater 145W, but runs at a meager – for POWER8 standards – 2.1 GHz. We can imagine that this is indeed based upon the customer feedback of space constrained datacenters, as IBM claims. We feel however that it makes the S821LC server less attractive as one of the distinguishing features of the POWER8 is the high single threaded performance. The POWER8 was simply not designed to run inside a 1U server. On the other side of the coin, a 2.1 GHz 10-core might still be fast enough to feed the GPU with the necessary data in some HPC applications.

IBM's OpenPOWER efforts Future Visions: POWER8 with NVLink
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  • PowerOfFacts - Friday, September 16, 2016 - link

  • BOMBOVA - Friday, October 7, 2016 - link

    Rich info , good scout
  • PowerOfFacts - Friday, September 16, 2016 - link

    Sigh ....
  • PowerOfFacts - Friday, September 16, 2016 - link

    That's strange, this site says you can buy a POWER8 server for $4800.

    Screwed up Power (so many times)? Please explain? Compared to what....SPARC? Itanium? If you are talking about those platforms, POWER has 70% of that marketshare. Do you mean against "Good Enough" Intel? Absolutely Intel is the market leader but only in share as it isn't in innovation. Power still delivers enterprise features for AIX and IBM i customers with features Intel could only dream about. Where the future of the data center is going with Linux, well it did take IBM a while to figure out they couldn't do it their way. Now, they are committed 100% (from my perspective as a non-IBMer while also being committed to AIX & IBM i as their is a solid install base there) which we all see in the form of IBM & even non-IBM solutions built by OpenPOWER partners and ISV solutions using little endian Linux. Yes, there are some workloads that require extra work to optimize but for those already optimized or those which can be optimized, those customers can now buy a server for less money that has the potential to outperform Intel by up to 2X, in a system using innovative technology (CAPI & NVLink) that is more reliable. I don't know, IBM may be late and Power has some work to do but I really don't think you can back up your statement that "IBM has screwed up power so many times". Latest OpenPOWER Summit was a huge success. Here is a Google interview

    Oh, but you were probably just trying to be clever and take a few competitive shots.
  • CajunArson - Saturday, September 17, 2016 - link

    Yeah, that $4800 Power server wasn't nearly equivalent to what was benchmarked in this review with the "midrange" server that costs over $11K on the same web page you cited.

    I could build an 8 or 12 core Xeon that would put the hurt on that low-end Power box for less money and continue to save money during every minute of operation.
  • JohanAnandtech - Saturday, September 17, 2016 - link

    " it will cost anywhere from 5-10X" . What do you base this on? Several SKUs of IBM are in the $1500 range. "Something like $10K for the processor". This seems to be about the high-end. The E7s are in the $4.6-7k range. Even if IBM would charge $10k for the high end CPUs, it is nowhere near being 5x more expensive. Unless I am missing something, you seem to have missed that IBM has a scale out range and is offering much more affordable OpenPOWER CPUs.
  • jesperfrimann - Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - link

    IMHO, the place where POWER servers make sense right now, is for use with IBM software. So if you are using something DB2 or WebSphere, where the real cost is the Software licenses.
    Then it's really a Nobrainer. Not that your local IBM sales Guy will like that you'll do a switch to a Linux@Power solution :)

    // Jesper
  • YukaKun - Thursday, September 15, 2016 - link

    For the Java tests, did you change the GC collector settings? Also, why only 24GB for the JVM? I run JBoss with 32GB across our servers. I'd use more, but they still have issues with going to higher levels.

  • madwolfa - Thursday, September 15, 2016 - link

    Unless working with huge datasets you want to keep your JVM heap size as reasonably low as possible... otherwise there would be a penalty on GC performance. Granted, with this sort of hardware it would be pretty minuscule, but the general rule of thumb still applies...
  • JohanAnandtech - Thursday, September 15, 2016 - link

    No changes to the GC Collector settings. 24 GB for VM = 4x 24 GB + 4x 3 GB for Transaction Injector and 2 GB for the controllor = +/- 110 GB memory. We wanted to run it inside 128 GB as most of our DIMMs are 16 GB at DDR4-2400/2133.

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