Five years. That is how much time has passed since we have seen an affordable server processor that could keep up with or even beat Intel's best Xeons. These days no less than 95% of the server CPUs shipped are Intel Xeons. A few years ago, it looked like ARM servers were going to shake up the market this year, but to cut a long story short, it looks like the IBM POWER8 chip is probably the only viable alternative for the time being.

That was also noticeable in our Xeon E7 review, which was much more popular than we ever hoped. One of the reasons was the inclusion of a few IBM POWER8 benchmarks. We admit that the article was however incomplete: the POWER8 development machine we tested was a virtual machine with only 1 core, 8 threads and 2 GB of RAM, which is not enough to do any thorough server testing.

After seeing the reader interest in POWER8 in that previous article, we decided to investigate the matter further. To that end we met with Franz Bourlet, an enthusiastic technical sales engineer at IBM and he made sure we got access to an IBM S822L server. Thanks to Franz and the good people of Arrow Enterprise Computing Solutions, Arrow was able to lend us an IBM S822L server for our testing.

A Real Alternative?

Some of you may argue that the POWER based servers have been around for years now. But the slide below illustrates what we typically associated IBM's POWER range with:

Proudly, the IBM sales team states that you can save 1.5 million dollars after you have paid them 2 million dollars for your high-end 780 system. There is definitely a market for such hugely expensive and robust server systems as high end RISC machines are good for about 50,000 clients. But frankly for most of us, those systems are nothing more than an expensive curiosity.

Availability can be handled by software and most of us are looking/forced to reduce our capital expenses rather than increase them. We want fast, "reliable enough" servers at low costs that are easy to service. And that is exactly the reason why the single and dual sockets Xeon servers have been so popular the past decade. Can an IBM POWER server be a real alternative to the typical Xeon E5 server? The short but vague answer: a lot has changed in the past years and months. So yes, maybe.

Challenging the Xeon
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  • usernametaken76 - Thursday, November 12, 2015 - link

    Technically this is not true. IBM had a working version of AIX running on PS/2 systems as late as the 1.3 release. Unfortunately support was withdrawn and future releases of AIX were not compiled for x86 compatible processors. One can still find a copy of this release if one knows where to look. It's completely useless to anyone but a museum or curious hobbyist, but it's out there. Reply
  • zenip - Friday, November 13, 2015 - link

    ...>--click here- Reply
  • Steven Perron - Monday, November 23, 2015 - link

    Hello Johan,

    I was reading this article, and I found it interesting. Since I am a developer for the IBM XL compiler, the comparisons between GCC and XL were particularly interesting. I tried to reproduce the results you are seeing for the LZMA benchmark. My results were similar, but not exactly the same.

    When I compared GCC 4.9.1 (I know a slightly different version that you) to XL 13.1.2 (I assume this is the version you used), I saw XL consistently ahead of GCC, even when I used -O3 for both compilers.

    I'm still interested in trying to reproduce your results, so I can see what XL can do better, so I have a couple questions on areas that could be different.

    1) What version of the XL compiler did you use? I assumed 13.1.2, but it is worth double checking.
    2) Which version of the 7-zip software did you use? I picked up p7zip 15.09.
    3) Also, I noticed when the Power 8 machine was running at full capacity (for me that was 192 threads on a 24 core machine), the results would fluctuate a bit. How many runs did you do for each configuration? Were the results stable?
    4) Did you try XL at the less aggressive and more stable options like "-O3" or "-O3 -qhot"?

    Thanks for you time.
    Reply
  • Toyevo - Wednesday, November 25, 2015 - link

    Other than the ridiculous price of CDIMMs the power efficiency just doesn't look healthy. For data centers leasing their hardware like Amazon AWS, Google AppEngine, Azure, Rackspace, etc, clients who pay for hardware yet fail to use their allocation significantly help the bottom line of those companies by reduced overheads. For others high usage is a mandatory part of the ROI equation during its period as an operating asset, thus power consumption is a real cost. Even with our small cluster of 12 nodes the power efficiency is a real consideration, let alone companies standardizing toward IBM and utilising 100s or 1000s of nodes that are arguably less efficient.

    Perhaps you could devise some sort of theoretical total cost of ownership breakdown for these articles. My biggest question after all of this is, which one gets the most work done with the lowest overheads. Don't get me wrong though, I commend you and AnandTech on the detail you already provide.
    Reply
  • AstroGuardian - Tuesday, December 08, 2015 - link

    It's good to have someone challenging Intel, since AMD crap their pants on regular basis Reply
  • dba - Monday, July 25, 2016 - link

    Dear Johan:

    Can you extrapolate how much faster the Sparc S7 will be in your Cluster Benchmarking,
    if the 2 on Die Infiniband ports are Activated, 5, 10, 20% ???

    Thank You, dennis b.
    Reply

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