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IBM Power9 Scales Up in Servers

October 23, 2018

Author: Tom R. Halfhill

IBM says the 12-core Power9 processor for scale-up servers is now available on the merchant market to system vendors and manufacturers. This model accesses DRAM through external buffer chips, which provide industry-leading memory bandwidth and capacity for enterprise servers that handle large workloads. It also offers industry-leading per-core integer throughput, I/O bandwidth, and glueless symmetric multiprocessing (SMP).

By contrast, the scale-out Power9 processors that have been shipping for about a year integrate standard DDR4 DRAM controllers. They provide less bandwidth but are better suited to lower-cost systems (such as web servers) that handle threads with modest memory requirements. By offering Power9 products with both types of memory subsystems, IBM is targeting a wide range of servers with the same basic chip design.

The scale-out (SO) models have been shipping since 4Q17 (24 cores) and 1Q18 (12 cores). Initially, they appeared in IBM’s own Power servers and in a pair of supercomputers (Summit and Sierra) at the Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore national labs. Those machines currently rank first and third on the Top500 list. Other Power9 customers are OpenPower Foundation members such as Foxconn, Inspur, Inventec, Raptor, Supermicro, and Wistron. Most are Chinese vendors of servers or boards; IBM says additional announcements are pending.

Power9 offers the best per-core performance of any server processor. On the SPEC CPU2017 benchmarks, a dual-socket system with 12-core processors easily beats AMD and Intel dual-socket systems that have equal or greater core counts. The new scale-up (SU) model provides exceptional system-level performance for in-memory databases and other big-data applications that can exploit its superior memory subsystem. High-performance computing (HPC) is another strength, as the Top500 scores testify. But the older SO models remain attractive for data-center customers wanting a more economical and power-efficient server processor that delivers the same per-core performance.

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