IBM Ups Its Processor Power to 7

IBM today released its Power7 processor and unveiled a wide range of new servers running the chip, giving the company a response to both Intel’s new “Tukwila” Itanium 9300 processor and Oracle’s UltraSparc chips, which Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has repeatedly compared against IBM systems.

During an event late last month celebrating the completion of Oracle’s merger with Sun, the company’s outspoken chief executive took repeated shots at IBM (NYSE: IBM), saying that Big Blue’s systems couldn’t scale.

IBM now says otherwise. Its older Power6 chips were dual-core, single-threaded processors, while the Power7 is an eight-core design with four threads per core per chip. For high-purpose workloads that require computing intensity instead of lots of threads, TurboCore mode brings just four cores to bear, running at a higher clock speed, throwing cycles instead of threads at the problem. It’s an approach similar to Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) Turbo Boost.

Power7 processors also have energy-saving features, like Unique Intelligent Energy, which allows parts of a system to be put in a low-power state or turned off entirely. The technology also allows clock speeds to be turned down on a single server or across a pool of multiple servers to reduce the amount of power consumed.

For workloads that need lots of memory, IBM added the Active Memory Expansion technology, which compresses the contents of memory and makes physical memory appear to be twice as large as it actually is. IBM estimates up to a 65 percent increase in transactions or in users that could be handled by the same server thanks to the enhancement.

IBM has been running “like clockwork” at getting new processors out every two years, noted Nathan Brookwood, a research fellow with Insight 64, and this new Power7 processor is a huge leap over the old generation.

“Power7 is going to win every benchmark. It’s hard to imagine a benchmark against any Itanium in the enterprise RISC Unix class where Power7 won’t win,” he told InternetNews.com. “IBM is doing some very advanced cores. They have taken everything that people know about how to make a faster chip and rolled it into this.”

While IBM these days is making most of its money by pushing its services, when it comes right down to technology, Big Blue still leads its competitors, Brookwood noted. And performance isn’t the only area in which IBM is taking a front seat: Power7 is debuting a few months ahead of previous roadmaps, while Intel’s new quad-core Itanium is almost two years late. Meanwhile, Sun’s “Rock” processor is dead.

“So you have on time, better late than never, and never,” Brookwood joked.

IBM has revised its WebSphere Application Server and DB2 database to take advantage of the Power7 design, with enhancements like changes that enable the software to use all 32 threads in the processor. This will give up to a 73 percent performance gain over competitive application servers running Intel’s Nehalem, the company said.

As part of the launch, IBM also introduced four Power7-based servers. The Power 780 and Power 770 are high-end servers with room for up to 64 processors, while the Power 755 supports 32 cores.

The company also launched the low-end 750 Express server but did not give specs on the server. IBM says the 750 has four times the processing capacity of its predecessor, the Power 550 Express; 10 times the performance of a comparable HP Integrity rx6600; and three times the energy efficiency of a Sun SPARC Enterprise T5440.

The Power 750 Express and 755 will ship on Feb. 19 while the Power 770 and 780 will ship on March 16.

Analyst Charles King noted that IBM doesn’t seem to be playing up the chip as much as the systems.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In that view, the Power7 becomes one of the parts,” King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. “It seems to me, in the past, the industry has been in love with microprocessors for the sake of microprocessors. That’s probably due to the success of the whole ‘Intel Inside’ thing. It seems to me IBM is trying to move beyond that and say not what’s happening with the microprocessors but what we can do with these new P7 systems.”

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