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IBM lifts the veil on Power7 chips

Promises upgrades from Power6 boxes

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With every new server processor generation, there is always the possibility that the chip and its associated chipsets and system components are so different that both the chip and the server platform have to change at the same time. This will not be the case for the Power7 processors due next year, says IBM.

IBM is in no hurry to ship Power7 chips and the systems that use them. Not with so many other products being delayed. Intel's "Tukwila" quad-core Itaniums have been pushed back until the first quarter of 2010 and probably will not show up in systems until the middle of 2010. While its eight-core "Nehalem EX" (sometimes called "Beckton") Xeon-class processors are not going to be ready until late this year and probably not into systems until the first quarter of 2010.

Advanced Micro Devices is expected to get its 12-core "Magny-Cours" Opterons and their G34 chipset out the door in the first quarter of next year, but it is unclear who will be building big bad boxes out of them. And the fate of the 16-core "Rock" UltraSparc-RK chip was far from certain even before Sun Microsystems was slated to be eaten by software giant Oracle, and the rumor back in mid-June was that Sun had already killed off the Rock chip ahead of the Oracle deal. Fujitsu may have some speed bumps for its quad-core Sparc64-VII processors, which are sold in Solaris systems by Sun and Fujitsu, but it is not expected to get its own eight-core "Venus" Sparc64-VIII into the field until 2010 or 2011.

So IBM is not feeling the pressure from its competition in the midrange and high-end of the server racket to say squat about Power7. But its Power Systems customers, having seen so many other chips in the market delayed in the past year or more, are looking for a little confirmation that the Power7 chip is on track.

They also want to know whether or not the Power7 chips will be available to them through an upgrade process or if they will have to do a push-pull box swap to get to the new machine. In this economic environment, when Power server customers are not sure when the next thing will be available, what kind of performance it will offer, and what kinds of upgrade paths will be available, customers are not inclined to spend now. Since a new generation of chips and servers almost always means a boost in bang for the buck, it is smarter to wait it out.

IBM, of course, doesn't want customers to wait it out. It wants shops to buy Power6 or Power6+ systems today because it needs to make its numbers this quarter and next. And so Scott Handy, vice president of marketing and strategy for the Power Systems division, says that customers who buy Power 570 machines (which have up to 16 Power6 cores or up to 32 cores Power6+ cores) and Power 595 machines (which have up to 64 of the Power6 cores) will be able to upgrade to Power7 machines in such a way that they can preserve their serial numbers on their boxes.

Such an upgrade path is important because accounting rules require that an upgrade that preserves serial numbers, and therefore does not subject the box to immediate depreciation of any extant value in the box, keep a fairly large amount of the original box as part of the upgrade. According to Handy, the Power 595 machine, which is a big SMP box with NUMA-ish cache coherency, will be upgradeable by swapping out processor motherboards (what IBM calls books) with Power6 chips and swapping in Power7 boards.

The Power 570 has a slightly different architecture, with processor cards plugging into a chassis and several chassis being linked together with NUMA-ish chipsets and presenting a single system image, but Handy says that the way IBM is upgrading Power 570s from Power6 and Power6+ chips to Power7 chips will allow it to legally preserve serial numbers.

This means customers who are buying Power 570s and 595s today know they won't have to ditch these boxes entirely if they need to move to Power7 machines next year or the year after, which means they don't have to write off their investments ahead of their normal depreciation schedule. The guarantee of upgrade paths also means that customers had better take a stab at what they think pricing will be on Power7 boxes and make sure they get steep discounts on the current Power Systems machines, because they can bet IBM isn't going to give away upgrades to Power7 chips.

The neat trick with upgrades this time around is that the PowerVM hypervisor that logically partitions Power Systems machines has a feature called Live Partition Mobility, which will enable customers with two physical servers to move workloads off of one box, upgrade it to Power7 chips, and then move workloads back to partitions running on the new Power7, all without shutting down the running workloads. Customers with only one machine can do the upgrade as part of planned downtime (or they could rent a secondary box from IBM or a reseller just to do the Aztec two-step).

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