HAMPTON, N.H. – IBM (NYSE: IBM) recently unveiled the newest member of the Power Systems family, the POWER9 chip which is uniquely designed for artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning and advanced analytics workloads as the vendor seeks to become the infrastructure foundation provider for the cognitive era.

Along with POWER9 came the announcement of the IBM Power System AC922, designed to accompany the increased compute capabilities of POWER9 and touted by IBM as a system likely to become the most powerful supercomputer in the world. A key use case IBM highlighted was that of the CORAL (Collaboration of Oak Ridge, Argonne and Livermore) supercomputer, which the U.S. government uses for massive volumes of AI workloads.

To achieve the promises of Power Systems, IBM innovated across its hardware and software stacks to optimize the interworking of the two. The inclusion of NVIDIA graphics processing units (GPUs), second generation NVLink, PCIe 4.0 and OpenCAPI all increase the functionality of AC922 when compared to older solutions.

Further, these developmental advancements enable IBM to tout five times more I/O bandwidth when compared to x86 servers, creating an environment ripe with pushback on industry standard servers as IBM seeks to take some of its lost market share back with its AI-centric platform.
TBR believes that as workloads become more complex, IBM will capitalize on this by messaging the superior functions of its proprietary servers, both Power Systems and IBM Z, to regain some of its market share in the server space.


POWER9 is inherently flexible so it maintains its relevance as demands continue to evolve

In IBM’s typical fashion, POWER9 is designed to evolve with demand, and the vendor has messaged a chip design suitable for scale-up and scale-out capabilities to enable increased flexibility to adapt to individual customers’ needs. The core of the POWER9 chip has been redesigned to enable this flexibility.

Further, IBM has a long-term road map for POWER9, which will further maintain the company’s ability to target evolving workloads. Through 2020 and beyond, IBM is investing in its GPU capabilities, including higher NVLink throughput and denser compute options. In 2018 IBM will make water-cooled versions of the AC922 available that will improve the system’s efficiency and reduce some operating expenses.

TBR believes the launch of POWER9 is only the beginning of a series of significant advancements in the Power Systems portfolio. Today’s launch enables IBM to deliver on its promise of unveiling the new POWER9 chip before the end of 2017, but a detailed road map reaffirms this launch is the beginning of innovation around the company’s AI-enabling chip design, as is common with IBM’s POWER chip launches. Major modifications mid-product cycle for POWER8 occurred, and we believe a similar cadence will be unfolded for POWER9. As IBM continues to target workloads of the future with its cutting-edge investments, monetization remains a challenge for the vendor.

However, this will be less of a concern with POWER9 as its use cases are, while targeted toward AI, broad and flexible enough to reach a larger audience and IBM has an existing Power Systems customer base to target sales of its new chip toward.

A move back to optimized infrastructure bodes well for POWER9

IBM appears to be banking on a pendulum shift from open, “plug and play” infrastructure to optimized infrastructure, which IBM has described as co-optimized hardware and software integral to cognitive acceleration. The greatest obstacle to cognitive adoption comes from the amount of time it takes to train the cognitive assets on the data sets. Given this tight coupling, IBM believes more tightly optimized stacks will be critical to user acceptance of these emerging technologies. If the Z14 refresh focused on extending security and orchestration capabilities, then the POWER9 processor and server architecture is positioned to handle analytics-intensive workloads in a “rack and stack” form factor capable of working anywhere from the edge all the way up to large high-performance computing data centers.

Implications from the announcement include the following:

  • Competitors: IBM clearly seeks to take aim at the commodity server market to displace net-new purchases with POWER9-based systems optimized for emerging analytics-intensive workloads.
  • Partners: The messaging around co-optimized infrastructure emphasizes the value of the broader IBM ecosystem where IBM seeks to recruit more partners with the necessary niche expertise to drive analytics deeper into specific customer application layers. Smaller entities can participate in the broader IBM ecosystem, handling the base integration functions of security and brokerage while also providing the optimized bridge over to an infrastructure designed for cognitive workloads.
  • Customers: IBM addressed the immediate benefits of the POWER9 architecture while also laying out the Power Systems development road map to give clear indications of the ways IBM intends to evolve the architecture to bring optimized infrastructure to analytics workloads. Whether
    net-new applications or refactoring of core legacy applications, analytics will be infused into an increasing number of IT functions. The long-term messaging gives customers the long view on the way in which IBM sees its assets coming together to address the expanding realm of cognitive technologies behind which the company has placed the majority of its development and go-to-market efforts in this profoundly disruptive era in the industry.