Posts Tagged ‘little Endian’

IBM Shouldn’t Forget Its Server Platforms

April 5, 2018

The word coming out of IBM brings a steady patter about cognitive, Watson, and quantum computing, for which IBM predicted quantum would be going mainstream within five years. Most DancingDinosaur readers aren’t worrying about what’s coming in 2023 although maybe they should. They have data centers to run now and are wondering where they are going to get the system horsepower they will need to deliver IoT or Blockchain or any number of business initiatives clamoring for system resources today or tomorrow and all they’ve got are the z14 and the latest LinuxONE. As powerful as they were when first announced, do you think that will be enough tomorrow?

IBM’s latest server, the Z

Timothy Prickett Morgan, analyst at The Next Platform, apparently isn’t so sure. He writes in a recent piece how Google and the other hyperscalers need to add serious power to today’s server options. The solution involves “putting systems based on IBM’s Power9 processor into production.” This shouldn’t take anybody by surprise; almost as soon as IBM set up the Open Power consortium Rackspace, Google, and a handful of others started making noises about using Open POWER for a new type of data center server. The most recent announcements around Power9, covered here back in Feb., promise some new options with even more coming.

Writes Morgan: “Google now has seven applications that have more than 1 billion users – adding Android, Maps, Chrome, and Play to the mix – and as the company told us years ago, it is looking for any compute, storage, and networking edge that will allow it to beat Moore’s Law.” Notice that this isn’t about using POWER9 to drive down Intel’s server prices; Google faces a more important nemesis, the constraints of Moore’s Law.

Google has not been secretive about this, at least not recently. To its credit Google is making its frustrations known at appropriate industry events:  “With a technology trend slowdown and growing demand and changing demand, we have a pretty challenging situation, what we call a supply-demand gap, which means the supply on the technology side is not keeping up with this phenomenal demand growth,” explained Maire Mahony, systems hardware engineer at Google and its key representative at the OpenPower Foundation that is steering the Power ecosystem. “That makes it hard to for us to balance that curve we call performance per TCO dollar. This problem is not unique to Google. This is an industry-wide problem.” True, but the majority of data centers, even the biggest ones, don’t face looming multi-billion user performance and scalability demands.

Morgan continued: “Google has absolutely no choice but to look for every edge. The benefits of homogeneity, which have been paramount for the first decade of hyperscaling, no longer outweigh the need to have hardware that better supports the software companies like Google use in production.”

This isn’t Intel’s problem alone although it introduced a new generation of systems, dubbed Skylake, to address some of these concerns. As Morgan noted recently, “various ARM chips –especially ThunderX2 from Cavium and Centriq 2400 from Qualcomm –can boost non-X86 numbers.” So can AMD’s Epyc X86 processors. Similarly, the Open Power consortium offers an alternative in POWER9.

Morgan went on: IBM differentiated the hardware with its NVLink versions and, depending on the workload and the competition, with its most aggressive pricing and a leaner and cheaper microcode and hypervisor stack reserved for the Linux workloads that the company is chasing. IBM very much wants to sell its Power-Linux combo against Intel’s Xeon-Linux and also keep AMD’s Epyc-Linux at bay. Still, it is not apparent to Morgan how POWER9 will compete.

Success may come down to a battle of vendor ecosystems. As Morgan points out: aside from the POWER9 system that Google co-engineered with Rackspace Hosting, the most important contributions that Google has made to the OpenPower effort is to work with IBM to create the OPAL firmware, the OpenKVM hypervisor, and the OpenBMC baseboard management controller, which are all crafted to support little endian Linux, as is common on x86.

Guess this is the time wade into the endian morass. Endian refers to the byte ordering that is used, and IBM chips and a few others do them in reverse of the x86 and Arm architectures. The Power8 chip and its POWER9 follow-on support either mode, big or little endian. By making all of these changes, IBM has made the Power platform more palatable to the hyperscalers, which is why Google, Tencent, Alibaba, Uber, and PayPal all talk about how they make use of Power machinery, particularly to accelerate machine learning and generic back-end workloads. But as quickly as IBM jumped on the problem recently after letting it linger for years, it remains one more complication that must be considered. Keep that in mind when a hyperscaler like Google talks about performance per TCO dollar.

Where is all this going? Your guess is as good as any. The hyperscalers and the consortia eventually should resolve this and DancingDinosaur will keep watching. Stay tuned.

DancingDinosaur is Alan Radding, a veteran information technology analyst, writer, and ghost-writer. Follow DancingDinosaur on Twitter, @mainframeblog. See more of his work at technologywriter.com and here.


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