A brief history of POWER

By | 4 minute read | April 17, 2018

The beginning of 2018 saw the launch of IBM’s scale-out family of IBM POWER9 servers. Previously, IBM launched the AC922 server, the AI and HPC-dedicated system with embedded GPUs, a truly revolutionary offering in this space.

power9 server, POWER Processors

But what is the story behind the POWER9 server? The secret lies in the POWER line of processors, graduated now to the 9th generation.

processor image, POWER Processors

The name is an acronym for performance optimization with enhanced reduced instruction set computer (RISC). IBM’s processor is using a different approach than the x86 processors (which use a complex instruction set computer (CISC) architecture) and is significantly different by design than the aforementioned processors.

Hello, POWER processors!

The first POWER processor was designed at the end of the 1980’s and made its appearance in the RS6000 and AS400 servers. The RS6000 was running AIX, IBM´s Unix version, and the AS400 was designed for OS400 (now called IBM i). These servers were designed to allow a tight integration of database and application running together on one server, a concept introduced long before the appliance concept become common in the market. Later, those servers were to merge into a single family – the POWER server.

The modern-day versions of these servers are capable of running AIX, IBM i and also Linux.

This can be done on separate servers or, alternatively, on the same server, next to each other. This is done using IBM´s virtualization technology called PowerVM, which allows you to partition the server. The strength of this technology lies in its flexibility. PowerVM allows the user to add but also to remove resources on a running virtual machine. Another strength it offers is the low overhead. Being built in the hardware, the performance penalty compared to x86 is minimal. That means that a POWER box uses most of the resources for performing tasks, not wasting them on virtualization.

The uniqueness of the POWER processor is based on its performance design. Rather than concentrating on ever bigger gigahertz (GHz) figures, the POWER7 processor diverged from this path. Even at lower clock speeds, the overall performance offered was better. One of the ways IBM accomplished this was by increasing the amount of threads, allowing more tasks to complete per each clock cycle. More threads meant more performance.

While an x86 processor is usually capable of performing 2 threads per core, a POWER processor can have 8 threads per core. The secret to performance is not only in the number of threads, however, but also in the faster memory access and faster I/O transfer. The processor is the heart of the server, but it’s not the only item to influence the speed of the server, since the overall design of the server is very important.

Power servers design

The Power servers are designed so that they can work with huge amounts of data quickly, making them perfect for the modern era enterprises where data and the insights it can provide are more and more important. In the real world, the average performance of an 8-way-multi-threaded Power processor core is around 2 times that of an x86 core.

This makes the POWER architecture ideally suited for highly data-intensive tasks. There is a special flavor of server dedicated to AI and HPC that takes advantage of the unique implementation of GPU computing. Alternatively, business leaders around the world in need to gain fast insights in their operations rely on the POWER architecture in order to make the most of their SAP HANA® installations.

Next to performance, a very important factor is server reliability. IBM Power Systems servers have a long history in enterprise and have always played a key role in the IT infrastructure of our customers. That’s why IBM Power Systems servers have always been designed to have a lot of RAS (reliable, available and serviceable) features like dual power supplies, memory correction without an impact on performance, hot swap functionality and features built into the firmware that activate and work automatically without user intervention. All of these elements create a server which has a proven track record on reliability and is recognized in the market.[1]

With the announcement of the Power9 servers, IBM takes the next step in the long history of Power servers. As shown in the past, this next step is again based on unique customer-centric technology, focused on reliability, security and speed. The new Power9 servers are made to respond to the highest demands.

This is the first in a series of blog posts dedicated to explaining how the POWER architecture and the servers based on it can help organizations. In future posts we’ll discuss in more detail the different way that IBM implements GPU compute. We’ll go into more detail on AI Vision, a technology that allows advanced image recognition, and we will also discuss how AI can augment various industries like government, education, healthcare and the auto industry. Stay tuned for more blog posts.

[1] ITIC reliability report: https://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?htmlfid=POL03276USEN