Cloud and high performance computing take center stage at OpenPOWER Summit 2016

The second annual OpenPOWER Summit showcases the next generation of the POWER ISA, as well as new server designs and forthcoming cloud services that use IBM's freely licensable processor technology.

Image: Saul Bromberger for the OpenPOWER Foundation

With the unveiling of the POWER8 series of processors in August 2013, IBM made the unexpected move of freely licensing the POWER architecture to third-party companies to produce processors and hardware--thereby creating an ecosystem around POWER8. The OpenPOWER Foundation was established to coordinate development among members, including industry leaders Google, Mellanox, NVIDIA, and Samsung, among others.

The 2016 OpenPOWER Summit was held within the GPU Technology Conference at the San Jose Convention Center from April 5th to the 8th, with over two dozen presentations given about OpenPOWER by academics and industry members. This included representatives from the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, University of Michigan, Baylor University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

OpenPOWER with Open Compute Project

Rackspace has been collaborating with hardware manufacturers on the "Barreleye" server design specification since late 2014. This POWER8-based server architecture was publicly showcased at an Open Compute Project engineering workshop hosted by Rackspace in October, with the design specification being accepted by the Open Compute Project in February. Rackspace plans to release Barreleye to general availability throughout 2016, with the servers first being used to power RackSpace's OpenStack Public Cloud.

Google and Rackspace are collaborating on the development of a server architecture specification based on the next-generation POWER9 processors. The upcoming POWER9 processors are based on version 3.0 of the POWER ISA, which is the first version of the instruction set architecture developed since the OpenPOWER Foundation was created. Like Barreleye, the specification will be submitted to the Open Compute Project once it is further in the development process.

OpenPOWER and NVIDIA Tesla for high performance computing

IBM, Wistron, and NVIDIA are working together on a second-generation OpenPOWER high-performance computing (HPC) server, which combines POWER8 processors with NVIDIA's newly announced Tesla P100 GPUs, connected using NVIDIA's new NVLink interconnect technology, which provides 160 GB/s bidirectional bandwidth. The Pascal-based Tesla P100 is also advertised as providing 720GB/s memory bandwidth, three times the speed of the previous-generation Maxwell architecture. NVIDIA claims that the Tesla P100 provides "over a 12x increase in neural network training performance compared with a previous-generation NVIDIA Maxwell-based solution."

Why use OpenPOWER?

While ARM servers have become increasingly popular solutions for low and mid-power workloads, the vast majority of servers use Intel Xeon processors. The intent of the OpenPOWER foundation is to create an ecosystem around POWER processors, where hardware vendors can provide compatible motherboards and accessories, in the same way that vendors currently do for Intel server processors.

SEE: Open Compute Project: Gauging its influence in data center, cloud computing infrastructure (ZDNet)

The benefit of the POWER architecture goes beyond price for performance. Because of the architectural limitations of x86-64, Intel has faced substantive difficulty pushing the number of threads in a processor. Intel's 22-core Xeon E5-2699 v4 is limited to 44 threads, whereas the 12-core POWER8 has 96 threads.

Memory buffering is also handled substantively differently in comparison--Tyan's GT075-BP012 server motherboard is built to leverage POWER8's capabilities for in-memory computing. While transitioning to POWER processors was previously problematic, POWER8 introduced a complete little-endian mode which allows for easier porting of software initially targeted to Intel processors.

Easing migration by becoming 'OpenPOWER Ready'

The OpenPOWER Foundation now has a labeling initiative to indicate if a product can be used with POWER8 hardware. This includes "OpenPOWER Ready" systems, which are complete hardware solutions configured with the OpenPOWER Abstraction Layer (OPAL) firmware, and capable of running and installing (at a minimum) Ubuntu Server 14.04 LTS or 16.04 LTS.

This initiative also extends to operating systems, applications, I/O adapters (PCIe 3.0 cards), Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI) solutions, and system support components.

What's your view?

Is your organization looking for alternatives to Intel products for your servers? Is POWER a viable potential platform for your organization to migrate to? If so, which is a higher priority--benchmarking performance, or ownership cost? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Disclosure: James Sanders is an associate member of the OpenPOWER Foundation.

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