IBM Makes Its Pitch for RISC-Unix

IBM Corp. has announced new software and service products for (as well as a revised upgrade path to) its POWER7-based platforms. Unix might not be the sexiest part of IT, but consider that while almost every server niche is hemorrhaging share, Unix server sales are at least holding their own (see http://esj.com/articles/2009/04/28/unix-life.aspx).

The outlook for RISC-Unix, as distinct from volume x86 or x64 Unix, is considerably more complicated, analysts caution. Enter Big Blue’s POWER7-oriented product and services blitz, which aims to deliver investment protection for existing customers and keep System p revenue flowing ahead of POWER7’s debut.

This is a particularly timely move, argues industry veteran Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT. In the current climate, RISC-Unix is beset by a host of challenges, so much so that the future of RISC itself seems imperiled. The foremost challenge, King says, stems from the inexorable upward mobility of x86 and x64 hardware. In addition, he points out, the acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. by Oracle Corp. raises questions about the fate of Sun’s UltraSPARC business, which -- along with Big Blue’s POWER effort -- is one of the two most prominent existing RISC chip lines.

"On the RISC side of the market, Oracle’s brewing acquisition of Sun Microsystems has many in the industry questioning the company’s plans for or dedication to Sun’s UltraSPARC technologies. Even if Oracle supports Sun’s traditional platforms and solutions and customers [as CEO Larry Ellison claims it will], many people doubt Oracle’s ability to effectively run, let alone turn around, Sun’s troubled hardware business," King points out.

With Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) now firmly in the IA-64 EPIC camp, IBM, Fujitsu, and several other vendors are left to compete in an ever-eroding RISC market. From Big Blue’s perspective, King argues, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. "[O]ne vendor’s bad news is typically good news for others. That is certainly the case for IBM’s Power Systems group, which stands to make considerable gains from its competitors’ pains," he contends.

In the same way, King suggests, offerings such as IBM’s Systems Director VMControl software -- which Big Blue positions as a one-stop virtualization management facility for all of its hardware platforms -- should at least shore up System p’s position in many environments.

"Systems Director VMControl aims to address a thorny data-center problem: how to gain the maximum benefits of virtualization without painfully increasing system management complexity. Though some may say that the new solution fails to go … beyond IBM platforms … it offers particular value to existing IBM customers and could eventually benefit owners of other vendors’ servers," he contends.

Initially, VMControl is available in two flavors: an Express Edition (which provides basic lifecycle management capabilities) and Standard Edition (which permits users to capture, import, create, edit, deploy, and delete virtual images across any IBM hardware platform). Big Blue also talked up a forthcoming VMControl Enterprise Edition release that will deliver system pool management and other esoteric capabilities. The slated ship date is still unspecified, IBM officials say.

Likewise, King comments, Big Blue’s TCO Center of Excellence sounds like an "idea whose time has come", particularly when CIOs are mulling deep (or at least significant) cuts to their IT budgets. Armonk officials point to the example of IBM’s Power Systems Migration Factory, which functions as a kind of proof-of-concept for Power (and, in particular, System p) as a workload consolidation platform. In the case of the new Power-oriented TCO Center of Excellence, IBM technologists will work with prospective customers to identify consolidation opportunities and quantify potential cost savings as well as proffer financing or leasing recommendations.

That’s a smart idea, King suggests. "During the continuing economic downturn, TCO has become increasingly critical to most data center owners, who are likely to welcome the guidance of IBM’s expert staff."

Finally, Big Blue announced a new upgrade strategy for its upcoming POWER7-based CMOS, touting a surprisingly straightforward upgrade experience for customers who decide to pull the trigger on a POWER6-based 570 or 595 server: power down, swap in new POWER7 chips, memory, and other equipment, and power back up again. System software migration can be facilitated using IBM’s PowerVM or AIX Live Application Mobility packages. Presto, Big Blue promises.

To be sure, IBM isn’t proposing to give away POWER7-based collateral: customers must still pay to upgrade their POWER6 kit. On the other hand, King notes, there are several reasons why Big Blue’s upgrade program could appeal to enterprise customers. For example, it lets them retain their existing system serial numbers, an accounting-friendly move that will make it possible for them to transition to POWER7-based performance without writing-off existing investments before they’ve been fully depreciated.

Second, with POWER7 on tap, Big Blue should at least notionally be willing to cut new Power 570 or 595 buyers steep discounts, the better to tempt them into pulling the trigger on a purchase during what would otherwise be a fallow period. "This is not a big deal for everyone, but for Power systems owners who are sensitive to this, the new POWER7 upgrade path will make enormous sense," King concludes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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