IBM and Oracle are among the few systems vendors still building hardware from the ground up based on their own processor technology. The pair are taking similar, if not identical, steps to preserve their platforms by offering capabilities that the hordes of x86 box shifters cannot provide.
Enterprise server vendors such as IBM and Oracle have faced growing challenges in recent years with declining volumes of server shipments.
At the same time, many organisations have been building private cloud infrastructure based on commodity x86 servers, rather than the high-end systems that tend to be the preserve of other processor architectures such as IBM's Power and Oracle's Sparc.
But the pair are fighting back, positioning the platforms based on their respective processor technologies as better suited for enterprise workloads, offering capabilities that x86 systems cannot match, in addition to better support and integration services.
"If you look at that space, it's under incredible pressure," said Roy Illsley, principal analyst at Ovum.
"The way x86 is developing and evolving, it's eroding the bottom end of that market away, while IBM's mainframe is nibbling away at the top end, so they've got to come up with something to convince people these are technologies to invest in, and they've both realised that this is the best way."
The two firms are not taking an identical approach. IBM is attempting to create an ecosystem around its Power platform, promoting open source software such as Linux and striking up partnerships with third parties through its OpenPower Foundation.
Oracle, meanwhile, sees the Sparc architecture inherited from Sun Microsystems as a platform for building engineered systems optimised to run its own software stack, especially the Oracle 12c database and applications based on it.
However, both are pushing capabilities such as specialised accelerators to complement the processor, saying that a carefully integrated and optimised platform can deliver better value than solutions bought off the shelf.
IBM has recently divested its x86 server business to Lenovo, and is now repositioning the Power systems as the ideal platform for running demanding data centre workloads, with a particular emphasis on Linux and other open source tools.
"We're seeing a lot of new workloads in the data centre in terms of big data and analytics, in terms of social, in terms of mobile, and new consumption models like cloud, and coming up is the Internet of Things," said IBM Linux and open source strategy manager Adam Jollans.
"And a lot of those workloads are built on open technologies, not just Linux but OpenStack, Cloud Foundry, Docker and Hadoop."
The challenge, Jollans told V3, is that these technologies call for increased processing power, and processor architectures are beginning to run out of steam in keeping up with these demands.
This can be addressed by designing chips with more cores and more threads per core, with tighter co-ordination between threads, but also through the use of specialised co-processors for tasks such as number crunching, offloading I/O processes and security functions.
"If you look in terms of cloud systems, you want to be able to provide as many virtual machines as possible for as low a cost as possible, so it's about the density of virtual machines you can support, and the performance you can get out of those, and that's where we are aiming with Power," Jollans said.
The latest Power8 chips are impressively powerful, with 12 processor cores each capable of running up to eight threads, clock speeds in the 4GHz region and support for up to 1TB of memory per processor socket.
They also implement what IBM calls the Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface, which enables a plug-in accelerator such as an Nvidia GPU sitting on the PCI Express bus to function as if it were an on-chip peer to the processor cores, with access to the same memory space.
This eliminates the bottleneck you would otherwise experience with a plug-in accelerator, and enables applications to get the full benefit, according to IBM.
"What we're seeing is increasing interest in Power8 for the back-end processing for specific workloads like analytics and databases, workloads where you want very high performance like technical applications, and where you want a lot of virtualisation at the same time, such as cloud," Jollans said.
IBM has certainly seen some success in attracting third parties to its platform. Power distributions of Ubuntu Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise Server are being developed, while an enterprise-grade SQL database for Power systems is now available from MariaDB.
MariaDB chief executive Patrik Sallner told V3 that there has been demand for such a product on Power systems.
"We're seeing strong demand in that area, with many customers looking to push the boundaries of performance, and that's a new opening in the marketplace. Together with IBM and Suse we're seeing a lot of interested customers we're working with to enable this," he said.
Oracle's strategy is not a million miles away. Its forthcoming Sparc M7 processor, due sometime in 2015, is set to be a massively powerful chip with 32 cores, each capable of running eight threads, and supporting up to 2TB of memory per processor socket.
In addition, Oracle claims that systems built around the Sparc M7 will be able to fit up to 32 of the chips, making for a monster 1,024-core server.
But while IBM is opening up its architecture to build an ecosystem around Power, Oracle sees Sparc M7 as a way of giving its proprietary engineered systems an edge over the competition.
It too is combining its processors with accelerator hardware, but in this case they are on-chip circuitry designed to boost specific functions in its software stack, such as the Oracle Database 12c.
This "software in silicon" approach, as Oracle calls it, provides hardware acceleration to decompress data from a database stored in a compressed form in the system memory as it is accessed, greatly speeding the processing of SQL queries, and hence the performance of any application using that database.
Such optimisation is possible precisely because a platform such as the Exadata database appliance is based on tightly integrated Oracle technology from top to bottom, according to the firm, and ultimately delivers better return on investment for large enterprises than using commodity x86 servers, Oracle claims.
"The North American public sector is under tremendous cost pressure, and they are adopting our engineered systems and doing transformations. Why? Because it's the best value there is today in enterprise compute," said John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Oracle, speaking at an event attended by V3.
"People that are buying lots and lots of x86 machines and investing in generic computing are spending a lot of money. Each individual unit might be cheap but, when you're buying it by the rackful, you're just fooling yourself if you think you're saving."
In contrast, Oracle is able to offer "highly engineered solutions that accelerate the database and provide additional reliability and security", Fowler said.
However, while these efforts may convince existing customers not to abandon their investment in Power or Sparc, it is questionable whether IBM or Oracle will be able greatly to expand the overall footprint of these high-end server systems.
"A lot of this is about cannibalising HP. It looks like the wounded animal in this space, because it isn't really clear what it's doing any more," said Illsley, referring to HP's high-end Integrity and Superdome systems.
"I believe they are looking at preserving this sector of the server market where it is now, but killing off one of the other contenders, carving up their share of the market and winning some new business if they can.
"I don't see that any of what they are doing will really challenge the x86 space, but it is a very lucrative business, like the mainframe. This is about keeping those revenues."
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