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Hardware Today: Using Your POWER for Good

Tuesday May 25th 2004 by Ben Freeman

IBM's home-grown POWER chip is a key component of its four eServer lines. We look at Alpine Electronics and the University of Washington, two organizations using POWER-based servers to push their applications to new performance levels.

Last week, Hardware Today's Server Snapshot dissected IBM's four eServer lines: the midrange iSeries line, the data-center-focused pSeries line, the Intel-based xSeries, and zSeries mainframes. Although the eServer portfolio features several processor types, the home-grown POWER chip takes center stage. And with POWER5 taking a lead role in the iSeries and pSeries lines, it's even more in the limelight.

This week, we highlight Alpine Electronics and the University of Washington, two organizations using POWER-based servers to push their hardware to new performance levels.

Alpine Taps POWER for SAP

Alpine Electronics of Americas (hereafter referred to as Alpine) is nearly a household name: Perhaps you know them vicariously through the earth-shattering car stereos in your neighborhood. A leader in "high performance mobile electronics," Alpine uses POWER-based pSeries systems to tune its SAP deployment.

The pSeries 670
The IBM pSeries 670, one of several systems used for Alpine Electronics' SAP implementation.

When Alpine deployed SAP in the first quarter of 2003 as part of a worldwide company implementation, it chose a midrange 16-way IBM pSeries 670 accompanied by 2-way and 4-way pSeries 630s, all running AIX 5.2 to power the operation.

Prior to SAP, Alpine was running Oracle Financial Analyzer on HP Unix servers. The IBM pSeries 670 was selected for the SAP deployment because of the project's flexible partitioning requirements. To run separate development, quality control, and production instances on the same box, Alpine needed to be able to flexibly reallocate processor power to each production instance. "At the end of the month, I need more power, CPUs, and memory to run the business," Vasile Giulea, IS Manager for Alpine told ServerWatch.

The pSeries 670's Logical Partitioning (LPAR) made it a sound choice. LPAR allows on-the-fly logical partitioning, which enables Alpine to divide 16 POWER4+ processors and 32 GB of RAM between its three instances. Eight are typically allotted to production, and four each for development and quality control. Then, when the going gets tough, the production instance gets a processor boost. By using LPAR, Alpine has lowered TCO by about 20 percent, "because it's less maintenance, you have only one computer to maintain," Giulea notes.

Giulea told ServerWatch that Alpine's migration from HP and Oracle stemmed not so much from dissatisfaction as from the desire to take advantage of the benefits of LPAR. "The HP was a very good machine; I didn't have any problems," Giulea said. Alpine went with IBM primarily because HP simply didn't offer a system with LPAR-type functionality at the time of purchase.

LPAR was introduced with the release of AIX 5.2 in October 2002. It beat HP's vPar to market by three months.

If ever there was doubt that time-to-market can win deals, here is one example that proves it true.

Alpine has worked with IBM reseller Advanced Systems Group, for the deployment and software support, but it receives 24x7 hardware support directly from Big Blue. So far, it has needed it only for a firmware upgrade, which went "very smooth," Giulea said. "I just called IBM, scheduled, and they came on Saturday, shut the system down, and upgraded the firmware."

Giulea's group also uses IBM xSeries machines, in particular, a 14 blade BladeCenter that runs Windows and RedHat on HS20 blades to power back-office applications.

>> UW Builds a POWERful Catalog

UW Builds a POWERful Catalog

While Alpine uses POWER systems to boost the volume on its business applications, the University of Washington (UW) directs them to more visual use: the development of a comprehensive catalog of films, videos, and other media. After securing funding from the Library of Congress, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), and National Science Foundation, UW (along with Rutgers and Georgia Tech), have used entry-level 2-way, POWER4+ pSeries 610 and pSeries 630 systems running SUSE Linux to build their Moving Image Collections (MIC) Portal Project. UW produces the directory server for the catalog with two 2-way pSeries 610s, while Rutgers and Georgia Tech direct the union catalog and portal sites with pSeries 630s.

According to Jim DeRoest, assistant director of computing and communications for UW, the project derived from a need of AMIA's: "They were looking for a way to create a directory and a catalog of video collections that would be accessible on the Web and provide portals for various communities, educators, producers, editors, footage people — various folks who are interested in video collections," he said. DeRoest and his Rutgers and Georgia Tech counterparts, Grace Agnew and Ed Price, respectively, set to work costuming POWER systems for the disparate tasks needed for the project. Although the project is still in development, early screenings for select user sets are under way, DeRoest said.

Extensive experience with AIX and POWER at each university was a factor in choosing pSeries systems, DeRoest said. But with a limited equipment allocation, price/performance also mattered. A decision to go with Linux boxes for open standards and low-cost meant considering inexpensive Intel boxes, an idea the group eventually nixed. "One problem that we've had here at the UW with Intel Linux boxes is, even when we buy them from the same vendor — you know, Dell, HP, whoever it happens to be — we buy a particular model, deploy Linux, and deploy drivers," DeRoest said, "then four to six months later, we go back and order the same model. Well, unbeknownst to us they've changed the video chipset, changed drivers, and suddenly the installation we were using doesn't work anymore, and we have to go out and find drivers."

With POWER and the pSeries, on the other hand, DeRoest found that "as long as you stay with a particular model number, it stays consistent." In fact, the simplicity found in an eleventh-hour Linux build pushed a POWER implementation below budget and made the portability a reality.

As far as IBM support, there "certainly haven't been any showstoppers along the way," DeRoest said. He does, however, take issue with Big Blue's Linux support model. When problems arise, "we've had to work with SUSE and we've had to work with IBM, and [we] go back and forth," he said. More direct support in this vein would help, he added. As IBM hones its Linux resources to match its AIX experience, this problem may fade, especially if it puts the promised muscle behind Linux on POWER.

These studies show POWER in action, and should make compelling cases for some enterprises to try POWER for themselves. These case studies show POWER's unique value: build consistency, robust partitioning, and an increasingly viable platform for Linux. As the 32-bit/64-bit market takes shape, POWER may set the spotlight on its products, particularly compared to Opteron and Itanium-2.

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