IBM chases Intel with new Power-based Linux servers sold over the Web

The servers are aimed at scale-out and cloud deployments running big data workloads

IBM is gunning for a slice of Intel's x86 server chip business with a new family of Power systems that run Linux and will be sold directly to customers over the Web.

The LC family of servers, which went on sale Thursday, is aimed at organizations deploying clustered or cloud environments, particularly for running Hadoop, Spark and other workloads that involve crunching large volumes of data.

IBM already sells Power servers running Linux, but these new boxes differ in a number of ways, and mark the latest effort by IBM to expand its Power platform into new markets, said Stephanie Chiras, director and business line executive for scale-out Power systems.

For a start, the servers make use of industry standard components, including the memory DIMMs, to keep prices lower, and they don't automatically "call home" to IBM if there's a failure, as other Power systems do. They're also sold with a lower-cost warranty, where customers order replacement parts themselves.

In short, IBM is taking some lessons from the x86 market to offer servers that will be more cost-competitive with Intel-based systems from the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo.

It's a different model from the one IBM has typically pursued with its Power systems, in which products command higher prices in return for higher levels of reliability and support.

The new model is evident in the buying process, too. While customers usually go through IBM's sales team or a channel partner to buy Power systems, IBM will offer some preconfigured options that customers can "click to buy" over the Web with a credit card.

"We want those folks who are used to running x86 to know there's a choice out there," Chiras said.

IBM kicked off a new effort last year to broaden the market for Power systems. It now lets third parties build Power servers, and encourages involvement from partners like Nvidia, Mellanox and Canonical, whose Ubuntu OS is offered as an option for the new servers, along with Red Hat and Suse.

It was a necessary move for IBM, whose own Power systems business has been declining with the Unix market as a whole. "It was time to make some bold moves," Chiras said. IBM is now trying to muscle into Intel's turf by selling these scale-out Linux boxes.

The servers are targeted at enterprises, managed service providers and HPC customers, and IBM hopes they'll eventually buy tens or even hundreds of Power Systems LC servers at a time, though they're likely to start by kicking the tires with one or two systems.

It's not chasing the entire Linux market, but the place where it thinks it can differentiate itself. Power processors are well suited for analyzing big data because of the high memory bandwidth they support and the high number of processor threads per core.

There are three new systems. The S812LC is a one-socket, 2U system, equipped with up to 10 processor cores, 1TB of memory, 115GB/s memory bandwidth, and up to 14 disk drives. It starts at under US$7,000, though a fully loaded system will be considerably more. 

There are also two 2-socket systems. The S822LC, for commercial and HPC workloads, has up to 20 cores and 230GB/sec of memory bandwidth. The S822LC is aimed squarely at HPC customers and packs two of Nvidia's Tesla K80 GPU accelerators. More information about pricing and specs is here.

Now that IBM has sold its own x86 server business to Lenovo, its happy to talk trash about that architecture. It claims the S812LC can run almost twice the number of Spark workloads as a similarly configured system based on an Intel Xeon E5 processor -- though that's based on internal IBM tests, which have to be taken with a grain of salt.

In addition, clients running their Linux applications on x86 would have to port them to Power -- an easier task now that the processors support little endian Linux, the same as x86 -- then also tune them to get the most out of the chip's multithreading.

Still, it may prove worth the effort for some workloads, and IBM is stirring up the market for scale-out Linux servers, giving customers some more leverage with their x86 suppliers.

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