IBM Unveils Power7 Systems, Ramps Up Competition Against HP, Sun

IBM is rolling out the first of its Power7 systems as it looks to grab more market share in the $14 billion Unix server space from HP and Sun. The move comes as HP and Intel prepare to release the next-generation Itanium processor and Oracle looks to bring Sun into the fold.

IBM is rolling out the first systems based on its new Power7 processors, setting the stage for a new round of competition in the rapidly changing high-end server space.

IBM will officially unveil the four new Power7 systems at an event Feb. 8 in New York. At about the same time, at a press conference in San Francisco that also will be Webcast, officials with Intel and Hewlett-Packard are expected to officially release "Tukwila," the much-delayed next-generation version of the Itanium processor.

All that comes as Oracle works to incorporate Sun Microsystems' SPARC/Solaris hardware line into its business, and Intel and Advanced Micro Devices look to grab more high-end workloads with their x86 processors.

"We're seeing three very big vendors ... sharpening their elbows a bit," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in an interview.

IBM officials are looking to press their advantage, having gained 12 points of market share in the $14 billion Unix space since 2005 and more than 2,200 HP and Sun server and storage customers over the same time span.

"We view the Unix market as very, very robust and mission-critical, and with [the Power7] platform, we have a perfect spot in the market," Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy for IBM's Power systems platform, said in an interview.

With the new Power7 systems, IBM is offering greater performance while consuming less energy than their predecessors, according to Handy. The servers also dovetail with IBM's Smarter Planet initiative, with capabilities to not only process large amounts of data, but also to analyze that data at the same time.

According to IBM, the Power7 servers deliver twice the performance and four times the virtualization capabilities for the same price as the Power6 servers, all the while consuming half the energy.

They also offer better price for performance than comparable systems from Sun and HP.

The new Power7 chips bring greater performance than the Power6 processors. Power7 offers up to eight cores, with each core able to run up to four instruction threads, enabling each chip to run 32 simultaneous tasks. That includes four times the number of cores and eight times the number of threads per chip than in Power6.

However, the new servers come with more than just new chips, Handy said. There are a host of new integrated hardware and software features designed to increase performance and energy efficiency, Handy said.

TurboCore mode is a workload optimization feature that can have four cores running, and putting the resources-include cache memory and memory bandwidth-of the other four dormant cores before those active ones. It also can increase the clock speed of those four active cores.

Not all systems will support TurboCore mode. Among the four new servers, only the Power 780, designed for such high-end transaction workloads as databases, will support TurboCore.

When not in TurboCore, all the Power7 systems are in MaxCore mode, which takes advantage of its increase in thread count.

The chips also feature Intelligent Threads, a technology that can dynamically change the number of threads being run depending on the type of workloads.

Another Power7 feature, dubbed Active Memory Expansion, uses memory compression technology to make the physical memory appear to be twice as large as it actually is, and can dynamically change the amount of compressed memory based on workload demands.

In addition, IBM engineers have optimized the company's middleware-including WebSphere, DB2 pureScale, Lotus Domino and Rational-to take advantage of the new capabilities in the Power7 systems.

Regarding virtualization, Power7 systems can support 1,000 virtual machines on a single physical server, four times as many as Power6 servers can support.

"They can put lots of virtual images on these machines and really consolidate the number of servers," Handy said.

In addition, IBM's Intelligent Energy technology lets customers power on and off parts of the system, or ramp up or down processor speed based on thermal conditions and system utilization, he said. Intelligent Energy can be run on a single server or across multiple systems. The goal is to help users balance the competing needs of energy consumption, performance and utilization.

The gains in performance and energy efficiency enable IT administrators to do the same amount of work on fewer systems, or to do much more work on the same number of servers, Handy said.

Along with the Power 780, IBM is rolling out the Power 770, a midrange server with up to 64 cores; the Power 755, a high-performance cluster with 32 cores; and the Power 750 Express, a midmarket offering.

IBM also is enhancing its Systems Director Express, Standard and Enterprise editions to make management easier and to bolster virtualization capabilities through enhancements to VMControl.