Big Blue says Power7 will make world smarter
It's not a chip. It's a system
If you believe that putting sensors on all manner of infrastructure systems, gathering telemetry on them in real time, and automating how they perform to the nth degree will all make the world a better place, you're well suited to a job at IBM selling its vision of a Smarter Planet - and some Power7 servers.
The top brass of Big Blue's Systems and Technology Group pitched the Smarter Planet vision yesterday at the company's Power7 launch in New York. The basic idea is that key infrastructure systems - transportation, electricity, and water - will need massively more powerful iron to gather up telemetry and use it to run this infrastructure more efficiently and that IBM is the vendor you could trust to deliver that big iron. IBM, you see, sells systems, not just commodity servers.
Of course, if IBM is wrong, then it went to a lot of trouble to create more powerful boxes that will do little more than consolidate footprints among its AIX customer base and entice some HP-UX and Solaris shops over to the AIX fold over the long haul. (This footprint contraction has most certainly happened in its mainframe and AS/400 customer bases, by the way).
But no one wants to talk about how elastic (or inelastic) demand for processing capacity will be in the Unix market, particularly once new iron from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle starts grinding against each other around the middle of the year like the action on the dance floor in a private club in the Bronx. (Wait, that's the wrong metaphor, but you know what I mean). All that IBM knows for sure is that the Unix market is somewhere around $14bn to $15bn and that at $4bn each, Sun and HP have money that IBM wants.
"This is not a chip announcement, it is a systems announcement," said Rod Adkins, senior vice president and general manager of STG. "This is not a reaction, this is not a new strategy based on a recent acquisition," Adkins said referring to Oracle's $7.4bn consumption of Sun, turning the company into a hardware maker and one that surprisingly says it is committed to building application-tuned systems.
"This is not a bag-of-parts announcement," Adkins continued, referring to the Acadia partnership between Cisco Systems, EMC, and its VMware minion as well as the Frontline partnership between HP and Microsoft.
IBM throws statistics around like Sun and Intel when they talk about pervasive computing, and Adkins fired off some numbers in his presentation: over 1 trillion connected devices on networks by 2011, over 2 billion people on the Internet, and a 10X growth in data, most of it unstructured. "The world is becoming more instrumented and more interconnected," explained Adkins. "And that is going to affect every system in the world."
To give a sense of the kinds of loads that modern systems are going to have to do in this massively instrumented world, Adkins trotted out some statistics from eMeter, a partner of Big Blue's that is involved in smart electrical grid projects. A utility company in Ontario is looking at installing 10 million smart meters.
Currently, the systems behind the electric power distribution company (which was not named) processes 120 million transactions per year taking in data gathered in from analog meters once or twice per month. (And using those pesky humans with their lunch breaks and health insurance to gather the data).
Installing smart meters at this company and polling the meters once a day - giving the power company fine-grained data and therefore fine-grained control over power generation and distribution - will drive up the transaction loads on the same applications used for calculating the electric bill to 3.65 billion transactions per year and generate over 1 petabyte of data. And polling those smart meters every 15 minutes, as the utility company things is necessary to really do smart grids, will push up transaction loads for keeping track of electric use and generating the bills will skyrocket to 350 billion transactions per year.
IBM is looking at demonstrating that it can build a system that can handle the smart meter loads for 50 million smart meters, which is ten times this load.
'A new type of performance'
"There's a new type of performance that is required here," said Adkins, reminding everyone that the problem was not just about gathering up this massive amount of telemetry, but doing on-the-fly analytics against these large data sets to manage the electric grids in real time.
Ross Mauri, general manager of the Power Systems division that is building the machines that put the eight-core Power7 chips to work, says the company has been working on the system design for three and a half years, and the machines are ready to take on the big jobs and the competition.
While looking the view of Central Park from the 36th floor of the Mandarin Chinese Hotel, Mauri took a moment to chat ahead of his unveiling of the Power7 chip and machines. "This is the first time that any chip maker has increased cores, increased threads, and increased per-core performance at the same time," Mauri said.
This is certainly true for the past several years of the RISC/Itanium market, and you could argue that the Nehalem-EP cores had a bit more performance than their predecessors in the Xeon lineup, depending on the applications and mostly thanks to a new memory architecture.
"The yields are good on the Power7 chips, and if you are hearing rumors to the contrary, call me up and I am happy to deny them," Mauri added.
In fact, IBM has had beta Power7 machines running at customer sites since last August - what Mauri said was the earliest beta for Power boxes in the history of the RS/6000 and successor product lines at Big Blue, and he added that over 100 customers have been using Power7 boxes since last December.
"These systems can run at 90 or 95 per cent utilization, and we have a lot of customers who do that," Mauri said during his presentation. "You can push these systems and they perform well and scale linearly."
Of course, the real issue in the new integrated systems world is having the full stack to tune for optimal performance - something that IBM cannot do because, unlike Oracle, it is not an application software provider. But IBM is aware of this and last year tweaked its sales force to do more solution-based selling with its ISV partners and to compensate its sales reps accordingly. "You will see us do a lot more partnering and selling with our ISVs," said Adkins.
I wonder how Oracle fits into that, being the dominant supplier of databases on Unix and the second-largest supplier of applications. IBM might be wise to merge with SAP and declare war and get it over with. ®