With An Eye On Accelerated Computing, IBM Expands Power-Based Server, Processor Line

IBM Thursday expanded its Power-based processor and server line with new models featuring tight integration between processors and GPUs targeting big data, artificial intelligence and other high-performance workloads.

The new servers are led by a model featuring a version of the Power8 processor that includes a proprietary connector to the latest Nvidia graphics processing unit, or GPU, said Sumit Gupta, IBM's vice president of higher- performance computing and data analytics.

The new servers, with a starting price of about $4,000 including two Power8 processors, show that Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM is looking beyond the standard x86 architecture to manage modern, high-performance Linux-based workloads, Gupta told CRN.

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"IBM believes the future of the data center and computing is in accelerated computing, including GPUs, flash storage and high-speed networking," he said. "That's the three pillars to acceleration in the data center."

IBM is upping the ante in the performance server market with the introduction of a new version of its Power8 processor featuring PowerAccel interconnects. With PowerAccel, the processor features CAPI, or Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface, which lets developers create custom processing engines for their solutions.

PowerAccel also includes NVLink, a connector designed in conjunction with Santa Clara, Calif.-based GPU developer Nvidia. NVLink is a proprietary interconnect that connects the Power8 processor with Nvidia Tesla P100 Pascal GPUs with bandwidth five times that of PCIe, Gupta said.

"This overcomes performance and reliability roadblocks, and lets the GPU get data from memory faster," he said. "NVLink also makes CPU memory and GPU memory act as if they are the same."

IBM also unveiled a new server, the S822LC for High-Performance Computing, featuring two Power8 processors with NVLink, up to 1 TB of memory and up to four integrated Nvidia Pascal GPUs. The server also includes three CAPI-enabled PCIe slots.

Also new Thursday is the S822LC for Big Data, which includes up to two Power8 processors without NVLink. This server has a maximum of 512 GB of memory and five PCIe slots of which four are CAP-enabled. Up to two Nvidia K80 GPUs can be installed.

IBM also introduced the S821LC, which fits two Power8 processors and 512 GB of memory into a 1U chassis. It can be configured with one Nvidia K80 GPU.

The new servers, and IBM's server strategy in general, stem from IBM's 2014 sale of its x86 server business to China-based Lenovo.

IBM followed up later that year with a move to open-source its Power technology to the OpenPower Foundation, an organization that now includes about 250 companies developing software and hardware for the Power8 environment.

The OpenPower Foundation is a key differentiator form the x86-based server environment in which Intel, the primary x86 processor developer, is moving to bring as much of the server, storage, networking and other technology under its wing, Gupta said.

"The IBM OpenPower Foundation is bringing best-of-breed technologies together," he said. "Ours is an open architecture strategy."

Gupta said exiting the x86-based server business and concentrating on its own Power-based architecture was a gamble.

"This was a strategic shift for us," he said. "The Intel road map is to own every piece of the x86 server market. It wants OEMs to build around its technology."

The IBM OpenPower Foundation, which focuses on high-performance applications primarily running on Linux, is a growing business, Gupta. However, he said, the growth is from a small base given that it has only really been in the market for about eight months.

"There are currently over 2,400 ISV apps ported to Power," he said.

The IBM OpenPower Foundation has turned out to be a healthy business for several IBM solution providers including Tallahassee, Fla.-based Mainline Information Systems.

Dave Lasseter, vice president of Power system sales at Mainline, told CRN that his company currently serves more than 1,200 Power-based server customers from Fortune 50 enterprises to midmarket businesses running critical business applications.

"For a lot of companies, Power is a key solution," Lasseter said. "We're seeing a lot of companies running Linux on Power because it supports more virtual machines and applications than x86 does."

The latest Power8 with NVLink provides the extra bandwidth needed to take full advantage of high-speed Nvidia Pascal 100 GPUs, Lasseter said.

"We're seeing a lot of ISPs porting code to the Pascal 100 to take advantage of the performance for virtualization," he said. "For instance, customers can use it to run technology from Neo4j, a database vendor that uses graphical analysis for visualization of data. Neo4j needs that Pascal 100 performance."

IBM's OpenPower Foundation was key in bringing IBM's Power-based server technology together with the kind of applications that require performance well beyond that of x86-based servers, Lasseter said.

"OpenPower Foundation was a gamble, but a good gamble," he said. "The Unix server business is falling, making IBM the leading vendor of a declining market. Now customers are moving to Linux. The biggest change at IBM is that it dropped its 'must-be-built-here' mentality, giving it lots of strategic partners on its Power system."

IBM channel partners looking to take advantage of the IBM's Power8 architecture and many of the OpenPower Foundation partners can work with Tempe, Ariz.-based distributor Avnet Technology Solutions.

Mark Martin, Avnet's vice president of IBM solutions, said Avnet's RapidBuild program, which started in the second quarter of 2016, is designed to help solution providers deliver complete solutions from IBM and its technology partners on the Power platform and Linux.

"RapidBuild allows us to integrate the parts into a full solution that will run out of the box," he said. "The new LC servers will be the cornerstone of the program. It will allow us to take Power into new markets."

The two new standard Power8-based servers are slated to start shipping this week, while servers with the Power8 with NVLink interconnect are slated to ship before the end of September, Gupta said.