IBM Power and Linux? YES!

The view of several areas of Linux deployment for IBM Power was described by our colleagues – Petr Plodík and Jiří Ševčík. Their article was published on (only in CZ). You can read it here.

News about the use of IBM Power processors in the Linux world has been around for some time. By the way, did you know that the POWER9/NVIDIA/Linux combination occupies the top two positions in the latest TOP500 World Most Powerful Supercomputers ranking? In both cases, they are IBM POWER9 servers AC922 with NVIDIA Tesla V100 GPU accelerators and RedHat Linux. Let’s take a closer look at this, for some people still slightly exotic, combination of (not only IBM) Power processors and the Linux world. And let’s focus on its applicability in our region.

As mentioned above, the POWER technology is not an IBM proprietary technology. IBM released and provided this technology for its implementation by other manufacturers five years ago under the OpenPOWER Foundation. IBM is still developing new POWER processor versions which are then manufactured by other entities (GlobalFoundries, for example). Other POWER chip variants may appear in the future. Today, you can already come across many server manufacturers, besides IBM, who produce servers with POWER processors – SuperMicro, Tyan and Wistron, for example.



Let’s start our brief look at the POWER architecture and Linux combination in the Enterprise world. There, you would usually come across commercially supported distributions of RedHat or SLES, and possibly Ubuntu. The SAP HANA database, where SAP systems are gradually migrated, is an interesting example. It is well known that SAP HANA is supported in only two operating systems: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES).

SAP defines rather strict rules (and limitations) for hardware and virtualization for the deployment of SAP HANA. It is interesting that POWER technology has been gaining increasing acceptance in this field. Do not expect a wide portfolio of POWER servers from different manufacturers, though. IBM POWER servers with the PowerVM virtualization are the most frequently supported variants. The flexibility of the PowerVM virtualization and its wide support for the SAP HANA database (no alternative x86-based virtualization is supported in this extent) in combination with the expected reliability of the IBM POWER servers will probably be the chief reasons for the wide acceptance of the POWER/Linux combination in this field.

System performance is among this system’s additional advantages. SAP HANA is actually an in-memory database where the IBM POWER platform can take advantage of its architecture design, since its hardware parameters in the memory throughput area are double that of the latest generation of Intel server processors (Skylake). There are already several SAP HANA installations on the IBM Power platform in the Czech Republic.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

IBM Watson represents one of the earliest practical examples of machine learning and artificial intelligence – the system is able to reply to commonly asked questions. It defeated two champions of Jeopardy, an American version of the Riskuj! Game, in 2011. Watson has since become the chief IBM brand for cognitive systems and a wide portfolio of technologies accessible in the IBM cloud. IBM offers POWER server and Linux solutions to customers who give preference to the operation of these technologies in their own data centers.

The most frequently used ML frameworks are supported in these systems – TensorFlow, Caffe, PyTorch, Keras and Chainer, including Docker environment integrations with Kubernates orchestration and the IBM PowerAI Vision development environment for data scientists. We are preparing a separate article to introduce these technologies.

Compute systems (HPC)

Supercomputers and compute systems have been a domain of compute clusters built on commodity x86-based servers and Linux in the past decade. Most HPC applications, both commercial and scientific, are developed for the x86-based platform. However, there have been advancements in this field in the last several years. The x86 processors have been gradually running out of their compute potential (Moore’s law has not applied to them for several years), and it is very likely that they will not be deployed as the main compute power in the first exascale systems.

A wide range of new technologies has appeared on the market – NVIDIA Tesla and Google accelerators, FPGA cards, vector coprocessors, ARM processors and IBM POWER9 processors. X86-based processors are behind the times in throughput as well – the generation 3 PCIe interface is no longer able to serve the coming 200Gb adapters, and Intel is not really open to the interfaces of the future – GenZ, OpenCAPI and CCIX, which are widely supported by IBM. In plain terms, the high compute power of the world’s most powerful IBM supercomputers mentioned above has been achieved mostly due to the NVIDIA Tesla accelerators.

The IBM POWER platform provides them with the needed high-speed connection to the processor (NVLink), fast access to the main server memory (RAM) to process large data models and fast access to specialized adapters (CAPI interface). New hardware technologies are coming to the supercomputer world, yet the Linux operating system remains.

Linux servers

Linux is the most frequently deployed operating system in the world of infrastructure servers, web and application servers and file servers, in the cloud environment and almost exclusively on the x86 platform. This is unlikely to change in the near future.

But what if …? The POWER platform has supported Little endian Linux for several years now, which has broought it much closer to the x86 world. Linux POWER servers were deployed in the Czech Republic as file and backup servers for one of the government administrations. This technology combination eliminates most security concerns of the x86 world, and it can be a response to the recommendations against the deployment of cheap IT technologies from some Asian manufacturers for key applications.

IBM also offers the IBM Cloud Private solution on the POWER/Linux platform. It will be interesting to follow the future of this platform after the implementation of the announced Red Hat acquisition by IBM.

POWER server models designed for Linux are built on commodity components known from the x86 world – memories, disks and expansion cards and their prices are close to the price of x86-based servers. Today, they offer additional technologies that the x86 world can only dream of – 4GHz frequency for 8 concurrently running threads (per  processor core), fast PCIe Gen4 interface, CAPI for super-fast cards, NVLink for direct connection between the NVIDIA accelerators and the processor, etc.


This article describes several examples of instances in which the POWER architecture, in combination with Linux, can be a suitable alternative to other processors. We believe that competition and alternatives in this field will grow and speed up the introduction of new and interesting technologies.

If you want to test IBM servers with POWER processors, please contact the Czech business Partner to IBM – M Computers –, 737 264 480.