Comparing Benchmarks: AT vs IBM

Before we close things out, let's spend a moment summarizing our results and comparing the performance we saw to the kind of performance advantages that IBM advertises POWER8 is capable of.

From a high level perspective, the S822L is more expensive and consumes a lot more power than a comparable Xeon system.

With limited optimization and with the current Ubuntu 15.04, the performance-per-watt ratio favors Intel even more as the POWER8 barely outperforms the very efficient 120W TDP Xeons. So there is no denying that the Intel systems offer a superior performance/watt ratio.

However, it would be unfair to base our judgement on our first attempt as we have to admit this our first real attempt to benchmark and test the POWER8 platform. It is very likely that we will manage to extract quite a bit more performance out of the system on our second attempt. IBM POWER8 also has a big advantage in memory bandwidth. But we did not manage to port OpenFOAM to the POWER platform, probably the most likely candidate for leveraging that advantage.

We are less convinced that the POWER8 platform has a huge "raw CPU compute advantage," contrary to what for example IBM's SPECJBB (85% faster ) and SAP (29% faster) results seem to suggest.

For example, IBM's own SPECjEnterprise®2010 benchmarking shows that:

SAP is "low IPC" (hard to run many instructions in parallel in one thread) software that benefits much from low latency caches. The massive L3-cache (12-cores, 96 MB) and huge thread count are probably giving the IBM POWER8 the edge. The RAM bandwidth also helps, but in a lesser degree. IBM clearly built POWER8 with this kind of software in mind. We had individual threadcount intensive benchmarks (LZMA decompression) and L3-cache sensitive benchmarks (ElasticSearch), but t o be fair to IBM, none of our benchmarks leveraged the three strongest points (threadcount, L3-cache size and memory bandwidth) all at once like SAP.

SPECJBB2013 has recently been discontinued as it was not reliable enough. We tend to trust the jEnterprise test a lot more. In any case, the best POWER8 has a 17% advantage there.

Considering that the POWER8 inside that S824 has 20% more cores and a 3% higher clockspeed, our 3.4 GHz 10-core CPU would probably be slightly behind the Xeon E5-2697 v3. We found out that the 10-core POWER8 is slightly faster than Xeon E5-2695 v3. The Xeon E5-2695 v3 is very similar to the E5-2697 v3, it is just running at a 10% lower clockspeed (All core turbo: 2.8GHz vs 3.1GHz). So all in all, our benchmarks seems to be close to the official benchmarks, albeit slightly lower.

Closing Thoughts: A Mix of Xeon "E5" and "E7"

So let's sum things up. The IBM S822L is definitely not a good choice for those looking to lower their energy bills or operate in a location with limited cooling. The pricing of the CDIMMs causes it to be more expensive than a comparable Xeon E5 based server. However, you get something in return: the CDIMMs should offer higher reliability and are more similar to the memory subsystem of the E7 than the E5. Also, PCIe adapters are hot-pluggable on the S822L and can be replaced without bringing down the system. With most Xeon E5 systems, only disks, fans and PSU are hot-pluggable.

In a number of ways then, the S822L is more a competitor to dual Xeon E7 systems than it is to dual Xeon E5 systems. In fact, a dual Xeon E7 server consumes in the 600-700W range, and in that scenario the power usage of S822L (700-800W) does not seem outrageous anymore.

The extra reliability is definitely a bonus when running real time data analytics or virtualization. A failing memory chip may cost a lot when you running fifty virtual machines on top of a server. Even in some HPC or batch data analytics applications where you have to wait for hours for a certain result that is being computed in an enormous amount of memory, the cost savings of being able to survive a failing memory chip might be considerable.

One more thing: for those who need full control, the fact that every layer in the software stack is open makes the S822L very attractive. For now, the available "OpenCompute" Xeon servers that are also "open" seem to mostly density optimized servers and the openess seems limited on several levels. Rackspace felt that the current OpenCompute servers are not "open enough", and went for OpenPOWER servers instead. In all those markets, the S822L is very interesting alternative to the dual Xeon E5 servers.

Ultimately however, the performance-per-dollar Xeon E5 competitors will most likely be OpenPOWER third party servers. Those servers do not use CDIMMS, but regular RDIMMs. Other components such as disks, networkcards and PSUs will probably be cheaper but potentially also slightly less reliable.

All in all, the arrival of OpenPOWER servers is much more exciting than most of us anticipated. Although the IBM POWER8 servers can not beat the performance/watt ratio of the Xeon, we now have a server processor that is not only cheaper than Intel's best Xeons, but that can also keep up with them. Combine that with the fact that IBM has lined up POWER8+ for next year and a whole range of server vendors is building their own POWER8 based servers, and we have a lot to look forward to!

Energy and Pricing


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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.
  • 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.
  • AstroGuardian - Tuesday, December 8, 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.

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