IBM Puffs Up Power Iron On Its Public Cloud

IBM, which arguably has the largest remaining big iron server business in the world, is one step closer to making systems based on its own Power processors peers to the Xeon-based machinery that utterly dominates its IBM Cloud public cloud. With the latest moves, IBM now has scale-out and scale-up systems based on a mix of its Power8 and Power9 processors available for rent, but these systems are only for the moment running its own AIX variant of Unix and its own IBM i proprietary operating system.

It would not take more than a few minutes to load up Linux partitions on the machinery IBM is starting to rollout in several of its datacenters. So don’t think for a minute that IBM is not going to eventually add support for Linux on this public Power infrastructure that it is rolling out. To be honest, it is a bit of a wonder that it is not happening concurrent with the rollout of AIX and IBM i on the cloud.

IBM has been providing hosting and outsourcing services for rent for six decades now, so it is a bit much to call it a newcomer to selling cloudy infrastructure. The company has dabbled with selling capacity with utility pricing before. Remember the whole Supercomputing On-Demand effort back in January 2003? This included clusters of systems – people called them grids back then – based on both X86 and Power architectures, with capacity rented, not bought, and it preceded the launch of Amazon Web Services by more than three years. But it is fair to say that Big Blue did not respond quickly enough to build its own public cloud – neither did other system makers and outsourcers, to be fair – and that is why to get back in the game it had to spend around $2 billion to acquire SoftLayer, a hosting provider that moved into virtualized and bare metal clouds that had amassed 25,000 customers and a fleet of over 100,000 servers in 13 datacenters when IBM bought it back in June 2013.

SoftLayer had built its own cloud controller and used the commercial XenServer hypervisor from Citrix Systems to chop up Supermicro servers into virtual slices. IBM sold off its System x X86-based server business to Lenovo a year later for $2.3 billion, so there was no reason to move SoftLayer, now known as the IBM Cloud over to System x gear. And the Lenovo cash paid back most of the SoftLayer bill. IBM invested another $1.2 billion in SoftLayer right after the deal was done, and had hoped to build out 40 cloudy datacenters, with hundreds of thousands of machines and millions of virtual machines. We do not know if IBM met these goals, and it doesn’t talk about them anymore in this way.

It took a surprisingly long time for IBM to get Power-based machines on its public cloud, and it is clear in hindsight that Big Blue was waiting until its Power8 servers were fully ramped and it came up with a more cogent Linux strategy on Power Systems machines to really push Power architectures from the SoftLayer cloud, which it launched in May 2016. The four bare metal instances that debuted then based on its Power Systems LC machines are still available today, based on the same single-socket “Habanero” system created by Tyan, with slightly different prices and with the same configurations that were available nearly three years ago. These Power Systems LC machines support Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Canonical Ubuntu Server operating systems and the PowerKVM hypervisor, but only Ubuntu Server was available on the cloudy versions on what is now known as the IBM Cloud. The Power instances are available in IBM Cloud datacenters in San Jose, Dallas, Washington DC, Sao Paulo, London, and Sydney.

IBM has not, as yet, offered cloudy instances of machines running AIX and IBM i, and it has similarly not offered bigger iron – both of which it sorely needed to do to actually offer potential customers the same class of machines on the cloud as they have used in their datacenters.

With today’s launch, IBM is getting a bit closer, but it is a little disconcerting that IBM Cloud is only offering SAP HANA in-memory databases atop Linux for running S/4 HANA applications on four-socket and eight-socket “Haswell” Xeon E7-4800 and E7-8800 servers. IBM’s enterprise-class Power E950 and Power E980 machines, which use Power9 processors and which scale to four or sixteen sockets, respectively, can run circles around this old Haswell iron. IBM’s Global Technology Services does plenty of outsourcing deals on such iron for running SAP HANA, which is a huge driver of the Power Systems business these days, but that is not the same thing as having true utility pricing. (We will get into SAP HANA on Power in a separate article, because IBM has some unique advantages that it is leveraging well here, and it is taking on Hewlett Packard Enterprise for the mantle in this enterprise arena.) IBM does plan to offer SAP HANA on the new Power cloud instances, so that implies that IBM is going to support Linux underneath it. And that also implies that it can support Linux – and we presume Red Hat Enterprise Linux, considering that IBM is spending $34 billion to acquire Red Hat – on these Power slices on the IBM Cloud.

IBM is chopping up two different types of Power machines on the most recent public cloud, and they are far more useful than the single-socket machines that came out three years ago. In one instance, the Power S922, which is a two-socket machine, is equipped with a pair of ten-core Power9 chips that have a base speed of 2.8 GHz and that run up to 3.9 GHz in Turbo Boost mode. This server tops out at 4 TB of capacity using 2.67 GHz DDR4 memory sticks, and it seems highly unlikely that IBM has configured it this way given the cost of main memory these days. Steve Sibley vice president and offering manager for the Cognitive Systems division at the company, tells The Next Platform that IBM is allowing customers to scale from 8 GB to 64 GB of memory per core, which implies IBM is using much cheaper 32 GB memory sticks. Customers who need a larger memory footprint – they can double or quadruple this – can pay an incremental price and IBM will load up some Power S922 machines with more capacity. The Power S922 servers are configured with disk and flash storage, and the instances can have anywhere from 10 GB to 2 TB of capacity on either, sold in 10 GB chunks.

IBM is also selling slices on a Power E880 servers based on Power8 chips and is planning on adding slices on Power E980 machines that are based on Power9 processors. Both machines scale from four to sixteen sockets, and in the case of the Power E880, IBM has set up systems that use the ten-core Power8 chip that spins at 4.19 GHz to deliver systems that scale up to 160 cores in a single system image. The memory and storage on this cloudy Power E880 scales the same as on the Power S922, with 8 GB to 64 GB per core for memory and up to 2 TB of disk and/or flash storage scalable in 10 GB increments.

Both types of Power Systems on the IBM Cloud are back-ended by capacity on IBM’s Storwize V7000 disk arrays, which link to the servers over Fibre Channel links. IBM installs the PowerVM hypervisor and either AIX or IBM i (and presumably Linux in the case of SAP HANA) and then customers maintain everything from the operating system and on up from there while IBM manages from the firmware on down.

Here is the set of features that IBM is rolling out for these Power instances:

IBM has been beta testing this cloudy Power infrastructure in its Washington DC data center since the middle of January. By March, IBM will have machines up and running in its Dallas datacenter as well and it will allow production workloads to make use of them. Somewhere in the second quarter it will roll out Power System slices in its Frankfurt datacenter in Germany, with other geographies to follow. It is not clear when the Power E980 will be brought to the cloud, but what we hear is that demand very high for this machine in the fourth quarter and into the first quarter that IBM wants to sell all of those machines it can to customers that are buying the whole boxes, not renting slices on them.

The pricing on the Power Systems Virtual Server on IBM Cloud has not been finalized yet, but the metering on the processor, memory, and storage is done by the hour. But Sibley likes to do math like we do here at The Next Platform, and he estimates that in like-for-like configurations, if you ran a cloud instance full out for three years it would cost somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent more on the IBM Cloud as it would to acquire it and operate it. This is a very reasonable premium, considering IBM is paying power, cooling, datacenter, switching, and management costs. IBM is also offering hourly license fees for AIX and IBM i, the latter of which includes an integrated relational database management system. Presumably IBM’s own DB2 relational database and its WebSphere middleware stack will be available on the machines with hourly pricing, and ditto for Oracle and SAP HANA databases. And in cases where you need to demonstrate dedicated capacity – a requirement for database licensing usually – IBM can lock down a slice of a machine, or the whole thing. And finally, the Power slices running on the IBM Cloud will be provisioned using Terraform, an open source tool from HashiCorp, that is also used by the IBM Cloud Private stack, so it will be possible to move virtual machines from private to public capacity and back again if necessary.

So how will customers use this cloudy Power iron? “I think initially people will start by testing out their development and test environments and see if it can run out here,” says Sibley. “I also think we will see people using the cloud for disaster recovery for Power Systems, because while companies think it is alright to own one datacenter, they don’t want to own two. And there is also a line of business angle, too. We have one customer that is starting a new business, and they want to start it out on the cloud on Power, and maybe some day they will move it back to their datacenter and maybe they will keep it there on the cloud.”

We expect before too long IBM will be ramping up the PowerKVM hypervisor on the Power S922 machines so Linux can be supported there in a more native format, and that Linux will be added to the big iron Power E880 and Power E980 boxes using the PowerVM hypervisor. We would not be at all surprised to see the Power E950 systems running AIX and Linux appear all sliced up on the IBM Cloud, either.

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