I've been going over my notes from the recent IBM Analyst Insight event and have given a great deal of thought to hosting workloads on different hardware architectures and platforms.
In the past, enterprises of all sizes were presented with a fairly stark set of choices. Workloads, tools and databases offered on X86-based systems might only work there. Deploying those software products elsewhere, such as on a mainframe or single-vendor midrange system, usually meant that the enterprise needed to do quite a bit of work.
What would it mean if that work was no longer necessary?
During the event, the IBM Power Architecture folks discussed the Power 8 architecture and how it can accelerate performance for many workloads. They also discussed IBM's work with several Linux distributors, using Flash memory as extensible memory rather than either cache or as a replacement for rotating storage media for processing on some new System p computers, and how the combined platform can easily support many Web, big data and analytics and "system of record" processing without customers feeling the pain of a migration.
IBM has worked with SUSE and other Linux distributors to make sure that many Linux tools and applications are available on both X86 and Power-based systems and work in exactly the same way.
This means that using Power might be as simple as moving data or changing a pointer to where data might be found. Does this mean enterprises of all sizes might be well served by re-hosting their X86 applications?
What are the benefits of using Power-based systems?
IBM increased the processing power of Power 8 when compared to both its Power 7 and Power 7+ microprocessors. This means that each core can do much more work than previous cores could accomplish. They also added to the number of cores available on high-end versions of the chip. So, at the same or similar price systems based upon these microprocessors can accomplish a great deal more work.
Better benchmark results
IBM presented preliminary benchmarks showing how their new Power 8-based systems managed many different workloads. When one considers the number of processors required, the amount of memory and storage that are supported and the cost, these new systems could make it possible for enterprises to improve overall workload performance while also reducing the overall cost, power consumption, heat production and the like when compared to doing the same things on today's X86-based systems.
Improved ability to interchange data
IBM also added the capability to process data in Little-endian formats along with the previous capability to process data in Big-endian formats.
System p systems can now just be dropped into the network and take over functions that currently are being hosted on an X86-based system.
(Big- and Little-Endian, by the way, refer to which end of a machine register or memory location stores the exponent and which end stores the mantissa, or decimal portion of a piece of floating point data.)
X86-based systems use Little-endian formats. IBM's mainframes and midrange systems and a number of RISC/UNIX systems use Big-endian formats.
Now, Power 8-based systems can process data using either format. This vastly simplifies data interchange among systems. Will this be enough to make it possible for enterprises to simply drop in an IBM System p and expect it to be able to take up work previously assigned to an X86 system?
IBM thinks data interchange is important, but not everything organizations really need.
The company has also worked with many partners to make important tools and applications available on both platforms and make them work exactly the same way.
IBM asserts that this software compatibility combined with the enhanced data interchange capabilities mean that System p systems can now just be dropped into the network and take over functions that currently are being hosted on an X86-based system.
So, IBM believes that enterprises that are currently hosting Linux-based Web workloads — big data, analytics and some custom applications — on X86 systems can drop IBM's Power8 systems into their network and quickly see performance improvements and reductions in cost, use of power and heat production.
Are decision makers starting at the wrong place?
With the changes and improvements IBM has made to the Power 8 architecture and systems based upon that architecture, IBM hopes that decision makers will start at a different place when making platform selections. The company hopes that they'll start with what work needs to be done and the performance requirements for that work, and only then consider what systems are available to address those requirements. Rather than restricting themselves to just X86-based systems and solutions running either Windows or Linux, IBM hopes that they'll now consider a different architecture, Power 8.
If the same workloads and the same tools are available on different platforms, the platform becomes a less important factor in the decision process, IBM would point out. Then the decision process can focus on what needs to be accomplished and what tools produce the best combination of price, performance, reliability and manageability.
Let's look at X86-based solutions
In the industry standard systems world, operating systems, application frameworks and applications are designed to use a general purpose, high volume X86 platform. The suppliers often choose to use the lowest common denominator when selecting processor options, memory capabilities, storage interfaces and the like to make sure that their products will execute reasonably well on a broad selection of products from many vendors.
While this approach means that an enterprise can select from a number of suppliers, it may also mean that the solution may use more power and require more cooling, more processors, more storage and be less cost effective than selecting a different platform. This is what IBM hopes everyone will see.
Considering single vendor solutions
When a single supplier provides the processor, the systems, the systems software, virtualization technology, the storage and the networking tools, the entire configuration can be tuned to a specific use. This could mean making better use of the available processing, memory, storage and networking power provided by a system. It can also mean addressing the enterprise's IT challenges with a simpler, more integrated, higher performance and yet lower cost solution.
IBM believes that its Power 8-based systems are now the best choice for many workloads. Will they be the best for your organization? The only way to really know if that is true is to do a proof of concept test and see for yourself.