POWER6 Goes Thud: Part V

Labor Pains

Having spent the last six consecutive weeks on the road talking to customers about Sun's incredible SPARC strategy, I'm finally getting a chance to blog again. But as much as I want to talk about SPARC and our eye-opening announcement around the world's fastest microprocessor, IBM just keeps making things too easy for me. Besides, it's my birthday today and I feel like mischief. So here goes:

Three months is a long time to be in labor with octuplets and have only one baby to show for it.

That's how long it's been since IBM didn't announce a new POWER6 product family on May 21st. To see what I mean, here's what the POWER6 upgrades to the existing System p5 servers looked like back then:

Here's what they look like today, over three months later:

Do you get the feeling that perhaps IBM announced POWER6 a little too early?

Of course, many of the customers I've been talking to over the last few months are also talking to IBM, and here's what they told me:

  • In the if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail department, IBM has been foisting the POWER6 p5 570 on every problem these customers have. Apparently, it's just amazing how the POWER6-ized 570 is magically suited to run every type of application in your datacenter. Optimally, of course. Honest to God.
  • It looks like my prediction that IBM will do the old Wagonqueen Family Truckster bait-and-switch has proved eerily correct. They've been talking up and benchmarketing 4.7GHz POWER6 570s and quoting 3.5GHz and 4.2GHz versions. The 4.7GHz version is as rare as a COBOL programmer and many times more expensive.
  • Some customers are concerned that POWER6 is just not ready for prime time, and it's not hard to see why. Consider:
    • The "POWER6 family" is nothing more than a single point product at the moment. There is no sign of a high end or low end nor any indication of when or whether the missing systems will be available. If history is any judge, it may take IBM a year or more to roll everything out, if they even can (see below).
    • To get the performance benchmarketed by IBM you will need a version of AIX (6.1 -- or is it 6.0? or 5.4?) that won't be available until the end of the year, if then. Whenever 6.1 does debut, it will have little ISV support, have no binary compatibility guarantee (see a list of all the things that might break), and it will be trying out a whole bunch of new features for the first time, almost all of which were copied from Solaris 10 (which will have had those features available in production 3 years earlier, with a full binary compatibility guarantee in writing).

Despite IBM's assurances that the laws of physics somehow work differently on Planet POWER, the astronomically high clock rates of POWER6 are no doubt wreaking havoc with IBM's ability to shoehorn it into blade, low-end rack-mount, and high-end multiprocessor systems. This will take a long time to fix, if it can be fixed at all. If not, there go both their volume and high-margin hopes for POWER together in one fell swoop. This would spell disaster for IBM. They made a big bet on bucking the industry trend toward massively multi-core, multi-threaded architectures to try to squeeze out more blood from the gigahertz stone. They are stuck with that decision for at least the next three years until POWER7 is ready, and possibly beyond. And it's starting to look like that very important bet has gone horribly wrong.

Why is IBM trying to sell a product that isn't ready? Simple. In April, Sun announced the new Sun SPARC Enterprise product line. Let me say that again: product line. Entry-level, mid-range, and high-end. We have been shipping them to paying customers for months, and have been setting performance world records against IBM since their announcement. And IBM knows that next quarter, Sun will be introducing systems based on the new UltraSPARC T2, the world's first true system-on-a-chip and the world's fastest microprocessor. Preliminary estimates on one popular benchmark show that a single rack of UltraSPARC T2-based systems will outperform four racks of 4.7GHz POWER6-based p5 570s (more on that as we get closer to system announcement). No kidding.

So IBM had to announce and start selling something. And if that means selling their customers something not-quite-fully-baked, then so be it. They've got a whole bunch of guys in Global Services just itching to help you get over the effects of their labor pains.


IBM®, POWER™, POWER4™, POWER5™, POWER6™, pSeries®, System p5™, Redbook®, DB2®, and AIX® are all trademarks of the International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both.



while I agree with most of your post, the restrictions on binary compatibility for aix look very similar to the restrictions for solaris.

Posted by Marc on August 28, 2007 at 01:45 AM EDT #

>To get the performance benchmarketed by IBM you will need a version of AIX (6.1 -- or is it 6.0? or 5.4?) that won't be available until the end of the year

Bullshit - SAP-SD, TPC all benchmarks run on AIX 5.3
I not IBM fun and don't know is ready power6, but I can see useful benchmarks on power6 (sap, oracle oebs, tpc, etc) and can't see such benchmarks from SUN.

Posted by Triffids on August 29, 2007 at 09:23 PM EDT #

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