Challenging the Xeon

So what caused us to investigate the IBM POWER8 as a viable alternative to the mass market Xeon E5s and not simply the high-end quad (and higher) socket Xeon E7 parts? A lot. IBM sold its x86 server division to Lenovo. So there is only one true server processor left at IBM: the POWER family. But more importantly, the OpenPOWER fondation has a lot of momentum since its birth in 2013. IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation Partners like Google, NVIDIA, and Mellanox are all committed to innovating around the POWER processor-based systems from the chip level up through the whole platform. The foundation has delivered some tangible results:

  • Open Firmware which includes both the firmware to boot the hardware (similar to the BIOS) ...
  • ... as OPAL (OpenPOWER Abstraction Layer) to boot and launch a hypervisor kernel.
  • OpenBMC
  • Cheaper and available to third parties (!) POWER8 chips
  • CAPI over PCIe, to make it easier to link the POWER8 to GPUs (and other PCIe cards)
  • And much more third party hardware support (Mellanox IB etc.)
  • A much large software ecosystem (see further)

The impact of opening up firmware under the Apache v2 license and BMC (IBM calls it "field processor") code should not be underestimated. The big hyperscale companies - Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Rackspace - want as much control over their software stack as they can.

The resuls are that Google is supporting the efforts and Rackspace has even built their own OpenPOWER server called "Barreleye". While Google has been supportive and showing of proof of concepts, Rackspace is going all the way:

... and aim to put Barreleye in our datacenters for OpenStack services early next year.

The end result is that the complete POWER platform, once only available in expensive high end servers, can now be found inside affordable linux based servers, from IBM (S8xxL) and third parties like Tyan. The opinions of usual pundits range from "too little, too late" to "trouble for Intel". Should you check out a POWER8 based server before you order your next Xeon - Linux server? And why? We started with analyzing the available benchmarks carefully.

A Real Alternative? Reading the Benchmarks
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  • joegee - Thursday, November 19, 2015 - link

    It was an awesome community. I learned so much from everyone. I remember the days when we'd write pages arguing whether AMD's new 64 bit extension to x86 was truly 64 bit. The discussions could be heated, but they were seldom rude. I wish there were something similar today. :/ Reply
  • Kevin G - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    Aces brings back memories for me as well even though I mainly lurked there.

    A solid chunk of that group have moved over to RWT.
    Reply
  • joegee - Thursday, November 19, 2015 - link

    What is RWT? Reply
  • psychobriggsy - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Get back to Aces Hardware you! Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    Like Ryan said, I have been working 11 years at Anand. In other words, it is great working at Anandtech. AT is one of the few tech sites out there that still values deep analysis and allows the editors to take the time to delve deep. Reply
  • joegee - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    And still writing as well as you ever did! Keep up the good work, Johan! Reply
  • rrossi - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    Dear Johan nice article. Did u ever consider sparse system solving (with preconditioning) as a sensitive benchmark? It is a crucial stage of most scientific applications and it is a bandwidth limited operation with a high degree of parallelism. It would be definitely interesting to see how the power 8 fares on such a test. If you are interested I think I could provide a pointer to a simple benchmark (to be compiled). If you feel it may be interesting just drop me an email. Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    Interested... mail me, I don't have your mail. See the author link on top of the article. Reply
  • Ian Cutress - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    I'd also like to be pointed to such a benchmark for workstation style tests on x86. Please email ian@anandtech.com with info :) Reply
  • MartinT - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Johan's been with Anandtech for more than a decade, and has been publishing on the subject since the late 90s.

    But I very much second your "Niiiiice!," as reading his name always reminds me of the old days over at aceshardware, and I'm always looking forward to his insights!
    Reply

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