POWER6 Goes Thud: Part I

Or, How Clark W. Griswold Wound Up With the Wagonqueen Family Truckster

A little over a month ago, Sun announced seven new Sun SPARC Enterprise Servers, along with new virtualization capabilities, new reliability/availability/serviceability features, breathtaking memory and I/O bandwidth, and new world records on seven performance benchmarks. Every one of the new servers -- entry level, mid-range, and high-end -- is shipping to customers today. Including, of course, the ones that have those new capabilities and set those performance records.

Can you imagine if we had issued a press release announcing:

  1. only one of the seven servers, say, the eight-way mid-range M5000
  2. extravagant performance over existing servers, providing as "proof"
  3. "ultra-high frequency" processors but absolutely no data about whether the machines will turn your datacenter into a puddle of molten metal
  4. a promise for a set of software features and virtualization technologies that exist today only in other people's operating systems
  5. absolutely no word on where the missing six servers were or when they would be available

We wouldn't have had the nerve to face our customers the next day. Apparently, IBM doesn't grapple with perception issues the same way we do, because what I just described is exactly what IBM foisted on the public two weeks ago when they gave us an IOU for a new POWER6TM product line.

Wagonqueen Family Truckster I'm reminded of the scene in National Lampoon's Vacation in which the hapless Clark W. Griswold drives into Lou Glutz Motors to pick up his new Antarctic blue Sports Wagon with the C.B. radio and Rally Fun-Pack only to be told by the slimy salesman, Ed, that it won't be in for another six weeks. When Clark demands that his trade-in be returned immediately so he can take his business elsewhere, he discovers that it has been smashed pancake-thin in the scrapyard metal crusher. Knowing that Clark has nowhere else to turn, Ed convinces him that the metallic pea Wagonqueen Family Truckster (there are dozens of them, unsold, on the lot) is the car he really wants to take his family across country to Walley World.

I predict IBM will be forced to do the same thing by selling customers down-clocked versions of POWER6 for a long time (they announced 3.5GHz, 4.2GHz, and 4.7GHz parts, and benchmarked the 4.7s). If you look closely at the full disclosure report that IBM turned in with its TPC-C results, you will notice that it lists an availability date of November 21, 2007. IBM announced the POWER6-ized System p 570 on May 21, 2007. I'll do the math for you: that's exactly six months to the day in between. Would you like to take a stab at what's the absolute limit the Transaction Processing Council places on the period of time between announcement of a result and the availability of a system? If you guessed "exactly six months", give yourself a pat on the back. Next question: what price does IBM pay if they don't make that November deadline and have to rescind the result? If you guessed "precisely $0.00", go have a congratulatory beer. But they will have gotten six full months of penalty-free hype, which is, after all, the point of running TPC-C in this day and age in the first place. In the meantime, IBM will try to sell customers a bunch of down-clocked Family Trucksters whose performance on real-world applications can only be guessed at.

Obviously, I can't say that IBM won't be shipping any 4.7GHz POWER6 systems in the next six months, I'm just saying that you probably won't get one. When a company has little to offer in the way of technology innovation except ratcheting up the processor's clock rate, it pushes the laws of physics into areas where it gets extremely low yields on those dies. These are of course sold at a huge price premium and then allocated only to the best customers, typically under an early-access program. The Griswolds out there will just have to wait to see the performance promised rather extravagantly by IBM's marketing department. And if IBM promises you a 4.7GHz system, how confident do you feel, based on their apparent lack of confidence, that they can deliver? Got a schedule you need to keep on your journey to Walley World?

When Sun's internal engineering aliases were abuzz with IBM's IOU-for-an-announcement, I sent out an e-mail predicting that IBM will follow standard Imperial procedure and dump their garbage before going to light speed. (I know, I'm mixing my movie metaphors. And only one person wrote back saying he got the reference.) But sometimes you just get the feeling that history is repeating itself.

I'll be taking a closer look at IBM's claims around performance, virtualization, AIX, and more in the following posts. In the meantime, don't let anyone try to sell you the Family Truckster ;-)

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