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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  • jesperfrimann - Monday, November 9, 2015 - link

    Well, I think you should kick Franz Bourlet, for not hooking you up with with a IBM technical Advocate who actually knew the technology. Such a person could have shown you the robes and helped you understand the kit better. Again Franz is a sales guy.

    IMHO selecting Ubuntu as the Linux distro, did not help you. It's new to the POWER platform and does not have the same robustness as for example SLES which have been around for 10+ years on POWER.

    The fact that you are getting better results using gcc generated code rather than xLC, shows me that something is not right.
    And that the IBM JDK isn't working is well also an indicator that something is now right.
    IMHO selecting Ubuntu, did not make Things easier for you Guys.

    And for really optimized code you need to install and use High performance math libraries for POWER (MASS), which is an addon math library.

    And AFAIR having 8 memory modules, only enables half the memory bandwidth of the system.

    So IMHO IBM didn't help you make their system look good.

    But again that is what you get when you get rid of all the clever people :)

    // Jesper
  • nils_ - Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - link

    You can always rent a box at OVH, they offer a huge chunk of an OpenPower System, albeit virtualized through Runlabs.
  • stefstef - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    compared to the pentium 4 the mips r16k with loads of l3 cache was a bzip2 beast, outperforming the pentium 4 which ran at twice the clock speed and more. despite that the usage of zip programs is what these server processors are build.
  • mapesdhs - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link

    Just curious, do you know of any comparative results anywhere for bzip2 on old MIPS vs. other CPUs? It's not something I've seen mentioned before, at least not with respect to SGIs, but perhaps I can run som tests the next time I obtain a quad-R16K/1GHz (16MB L2) Tezro. Best I have at is only an R16K/900MHz (8MB L2) single-CPU Fuel and various configs of Tezro and Onyx350 from 4 to 16x 700MHz with 8MB L2. Just a pity SGI never got to employ multi-core MIPS (it was planned, but alas never happened).

    Oddly, back when current, MIPS' real strength was fp. Over time it fell behind badly for general int, though for SGI's core markets that didn't really matter ("It's the bandwidth, stupid!" - famous quote from Mashey IIRC). MIPS could have caught up with MDMX and MIPS V ISA, especially with the initially intended merged Cray vector stuff, but again that all fell away once the design talent moved to Intel in 1996/7.

  • Freen the merciless - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    Heh! Sparc T5 eats Xeon and power for breakfast.
  • kgardas - Monday, November 9, 2015 - link

    I guess you mean T7 with SPARC M7 inside and not T5. If so, then yes, M7 looks quite capable, but unfortunately provides horrible price/performance ratio. POWER8 box starts at ~6.5k $ while T7-1 on ~40k $. So on SPARC front we'll need to see if Oracle is going to change that with Sonoma chip.
  • Michael Bay - Monday, November 9, 2015 - link

    In parallel only.
  • aryonoco - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link

    Thank you Johan for this amazingly well written and well researched article.

    I have to agree with a few people here that question your choice of using LE Ubuntu to test. Traditionally people who use Linux on POWER use SUSE, and some use RHEL, but Ubuntu? Nothing against them, and I love apt, but it's just not a mature platform.

    Try with something more representative such as BE SLES and you will find a vastly different types ecosystem maturity.

    But thanks again, and also thanks to AT for caring about such subjects and publishing these tests.
  • JohanAnandtech - Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - link

    Thank you for taking the time to write up some constructive feedback. I have years of experience with ubuntu and linux and I wanted to play it safe. Running benchmarks on "new" hardware with a new ISA (from my perspective) is pretty complex. C-ray and 7-zip are the only exceptions, but most real server apps (NAMD, ElasticSearch, Spark) depends on many layers of software.

    In theory the OS/ distro is more important to get applications working than the ISA. In practice, it might have been better to bet on the distro with the most maturity and adapt our scripts and installation procedures to Suse.

    But as soon as I get the chance, I'll try out BE suse or redhat on a POWER system.
  • mapesdhs - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link


    A minor point, please note my home page for C-ray is here:

    Blinkenlights is just a mirror, and not the primary mirror either (that would be the vintagecomputers site).

    Btw, it's a pity you didn't use the same image sizes & settings as used on the main c-ray site, because then I could have included the results on my page (ie. 'sphfract' at 800x600, 1024x768 with 8X oversampling, and 7500x3500), or did you just use the same settings that Phoronix employs?

    Also, John Tsiombikas, the guy who wrote C-ray, told me some interesting things about the test and how it works (info included on the page), most especially that it is highly vulnerable to compiler optimisations which can produce results that are even less realistic than real life workloads. I'm glad thought that you did at least use the sphfract test, since at a sensible resolution or with oversampling it easily pushes the test out of just L1 (the 'scene' test is much smaller). But yeah, overall, c-ray was never intended to be used as a benchmark, it's just taken off somehow, perhaps because the scanline method of threading makes it scale very well.

    Hmm, I really must sort out the page formatting one of these days, and move the most complex test tables to the top. Never seem to find the time...



    PS. I always obtained the best results by having more threads than the no. of cores/CPUs, or is this something which doesn't work with non-MIPS systems?

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