Reading the Benchmarks

There are a lot of benchmarks available that compare the IBM POWER8 to Xeons. One example is the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software SAP. We have used the Sales & Distribution 2 Tier benchmark many times because it is one of the very few benchmarks that is a very good representation of real world high-end enterprise workloads.

SAP Sales & Distribution 2 Tier benchmark

Now combine this with the benchmarks that IBM has compiled on their marketing slides and the fact that we know that the POWER8 chip has a TDP of 190W at nominal speed and 247W when running at "Turbo" clockspeeds.

It all seems very simple: the IBM POWER8 is a more power hungry chip but delivers much better performance. But as always you should take the time to read the benchmarks very closely. The IBM S824 is typically the one featured in the benchmarks. However, we are pretty sure that is not the system that will be able to sway the current Intel Xeon customers towards OpenPOWER. Nor are we convinced that the most widely reported benchmarks are accurately predicting the experience of those people.

There are three reasons for that. First of all, most of the benchmarks are run on AIX (7), IBM's own proprietary UNIX. AIX is a high performance, extremely robust OS, but it does not have the rich software system and support that Linux has. Furthermore even with their common design elements, an excellent Linux administrator will have to invest some time to get the same level of expertise in AIX. But more importantly, the S824 is a pretty expensive machine, both in acquisition cost (starting at $21.000, up to $60.000 and more) and energy cost. That kind of pricing lands the system in hostile and more powerful quad Xeon E7 territory.

Lastly, the S824 uses two CPU cards or Dual Chip Modules (DCM), each containing two six-core POWER8 modules at 3.5 GHz. Now consider that the third party OpenPOWER servers have 190/247W TDP 10-core 3.4 GHz POWER8 CPUs. The power consumption does not increase linearly as you add more cores and higher clocks. So the CPU modules found inside the S824 are definitely more power hungry, probably well above 250W.

There is more. Take a look at IBM "Scale-out" server, the more affordable server range of IBM servers. First, a bit of IBM server nomenclature which is actually quite logical and easy to decipher (take note, Intel marketing).

  • S stands for "Scale-out"
  • 8 stands for POWER8
  • 1 or 2 is the number of sockets
  • 2 or 4 is the height, expressed in rack Us.

So an S824 contains 2 sockets in a 4U chassis and a S812 is a one socket system. There is one designation left, : the "L" or Linux .

Notice that the non-L versions also support Linux, but a few months ago they supported only the Big Endian (BE) versions (the slide is from the beginning of this year). IBM told us that all POWER8 servers now support both Little Endian (LE) and BE Linux.

This is important since using an LE version (Ubuntu, SUSE) makes data migration from and data sharing (NAS, SAN) with an x86 system much easier, as x86 only supports LE.

Challenging the Xeon Software Issues
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  • Der2 - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Life's good when you got power.
  • BlueBlazer - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Aye, the power bills will skyrocket.
  • Brutalizer - Friday, November 13, 2015 - link

    It is confusing that sometimes you are benchmarking cores, and sometimes cpus. The question here is "which is the fastest cpu, x86 or POWER8" - and then you should bench cpu vs cpu. Not core vs core. If a core is faster than another core says nothing, you also need to know how many cores there are. Maybe one cpu has 2 cores, and the other has 1.000 cores. So when you tell which core is fastest, you give incomplete information so I still have to check up how many cores and then I can conclude which cpu is fastest. Or can I? There are scaling issues, just because one benchmark runs well on one core, does not mean it runs equally well when run on 18 cores. This means I can not extrapolate from one core to the entire cpu. So I still am not sure which cpu is fastest as you give me information about core performance. Next time, if you want to talk about which cpu is faster, please benchmark the entire cpu. Not core, as you are not talking about which core is faster.

    Here are 20+ world records by SPARC M7 cpu. It is typically 2-3x faster than POWER8 and Intel Xeon, all the way up to >10x faster. For instance, M7 achieves 87% higher saps than E5-2699v3.

    The big difference between POWER and SPARC vs x86, is scalability and RAS. When I say scalability, I talk about scale-up business Enterprise servers with as many as 16- or even 32-sockets, running business software such as SAP or big databases, that require one large single server. SGI UV2000 that scales to 10.000s of cores can only run scale-out HPC number crunching workloads, in effect, it is a cluster. There are no customers that have ever run SGI UV2000 using enterprise business workloads, such as SAP. There are no SAP benchmarks nor database benchmarks on SGI UV2000, because they can only be used as clusters. The UV2000 are exclusively used for number crunching HPC workloads, according to SGI. If you dont agree, I invite you to post SAP benchmarks with SGI UV2000. You wont find any. The thing is, you can not use a small cluster with 10.000 cores and replace a big 16- or 32-socket Unix server running SAP. Scale-out clusters can not run SAP, only scale-up servers can. There does not exist any scale-out clustered SAP benchmarks. All the highest SAP benchmarks are done by single large scale-up servers having 16- or 32-sockets. There are no 1.000-socket clustered servers on the SAP benchmark list.

    x86 is low end, and have for decades stopped at maximum 8-sockets (when we talk about scale-up business servers), and just recently we see 16- and 32- sockets scale-up business x86 servers on the market (HP Kraken, and SGI UV300H) but they are brand new, so performance is quite bad. It takes a couple of generations until SGI and HP have learned and refined so they can ramp up performance for scale-up servers. Also, Windows and Linux has only scaled to 8-sockets and not above, so they need a major rewrite to be able to handle 16-sockets and a few TB of RAM. AIX and Solaris has scaled to 32-sockets and above for decades, were recently rewritten to handle 10s of TB of RAM. There is no way Windows and Linux can handle that much RAM efficiently as they have only scaled to 8-sockets until now. Unix servers scale way beyond 8-sockets, and perform very well doing so. x86 does not.

    The other big difference apart from scalability is RAS. For instance, for SPARC and POWER you can hot swap everything, motherboards, cpu, RAM, etc. Just like Mainframes. x86 can not. Some SPARC cpus can replay instructions if something went wrong. x86 can not.

    For x86 you typically use scale-out clusters: many cheap 1-2 socket small x86 servers in a huge cluster just like Google or Facebook. When they crash, you just swap them out for another cheap server. For Unix you typically use them as a single scale-up server with 16- or 32-sockets or even 64-sockets (Fujitsu M10-4S) running business software such as SAP, they have the RAS so they do not crash.
  • zeeBomb - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    New author? Niiiice!
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Ouch! Poor Johan.=(

    Johan is in fact the longest-serving AT editor. He's been here almost 11 years, just a bit longer than I have.
  • hans_ober - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    @Johan you need to post this stuff more often, people are forgetting you :)
  • JohanAnandtech - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    well he started with "niiiiice". Could have been much worse. Hi zeeBomb, I am Johan, 43 years old and already 17 years active as a hardware editor. ;-)
  • JanSolo242 - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    Reading Johan reminds me of the days of
  • joegee - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    The good old days! I remember so many of the great discussions/arguments we had. We had an Intel guy, an AMD guy, and Charlie Demerjian. Johan was there. Mike Magee would stop in. So would Chris Tom, and Kyle Bennett. It was an awesome collection of people, and the discussions were FULL of real, technical points. I always feel grateful when I think back to Ace's. It was quite a place.
  • JohanAnandtech - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - link

    And many more: Paul Demone, Paul Hsieh (K7-architect), Gabriele svelto ... Great to see that people remember. :-)

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