Analysis: IBM's Latest Linux-on-Power Move

Given the success IBM has had with its RISC-Unix business, PowerLinux doesn't seem like a bad idea, but will its success come at the expense of AIX?

IBM Corp. recently fleshed out its line of dedicated RISC-based Linux servers, announcing new systems and solution packages designed to address big data analytics, enterprise applications, and open source infrastructure services.

It's Big Blue's latest attempt to boost Linux-on-Power. Given the success IBM has had with its RISC-Unix business, it doesn't seem like a bad idea.

Big Blue unveiled two new Linux-on-Power offerings: the Flex Systems p24L Compute Node (an entry in its new PureFlex System line) and the PowerLinux 7R2 (a rack server that ships with PowerVM, IBM's Power-optimized hypervisor). The PowerLinux solution entries combine hardware, software, and services to address application- or domain-specific requirements.

IBM's PowerLinux Big Data Analytics Solution bundles IBM software (InfoSphere BigInsights and InfoSphere Streams) along with Hadoop; the new PowerLinux Industry Application Solution targets SAP applications. The PowerLinux Open Source Infrastructure Services package is optimized for virtualization and makes use of Big Blue's PowerLinux for PowerVM hypervisor. (Both new server entries ship with a built-in version of the PowerLinux for PowerVM hypervisor, too.)

IBM officials sought to heighten the contrast between Linux-on-Power and Linux-on-x64, AMD64, in the nomenclature of most Linux systems.

The company placed particular emphasis on the optimized hypervisor that it ships with its PowerLinux systems. "As CIOs seek to transform their IT department from a cost center to a strategic asset, many have a misconception that deploying Linux on x86 servers equipped with VMware software is their only option for taking advantage of open source applications," said Colin Parris, general manager for IBM Power Systems, in a prepared statement.

"Serving the Linux market with Power Systems is an important initiative for IBM. With IBM PowerLinux solutions and systems, customers now have powerful, cost-effective alternatives, as well as a broad ecosystem of support from our global partners to get the right solution -- hardware, software, and services -- for virtually any business requirement."

Power Play

Big Blue's latest Linux-on-Power play comes at a time when IBM's AIX operating system is the only one among the major RISC-Unix flavors that's still increasing its market share. According to tallies from both International Data Corp. (IDC) and Gartner Inc., IBM's chief competitors -- Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Oracle Corp. -- are slowly but surely ceding RISC-Unix share. RISC-Unix as a whole is on the decline, with IBM growing at the expense of its competitors.

RISC-Linux isn't exactly growing like gangbusters, however.

Although Oracle has made noises about delivering Linux-on-RISC, it has yet to actually do so. In late 2010, for example, Oracle chief Larry Ellison said a port of Oracle Enterprise Linux (OEL) to Sun's Sparc architecture was "definitely going to happen." As of this April, OEL-on-Sparc was still missing. HP, for its part, markets Linux-on-Itanium, which is based on IA-64, an EPIC architecture. (HP used to market Linux-on-PA-RISC, but no longer sells new PA-RISC kit.) The problem isn't confined entirely to RISC, either: as HP's experience with Itanium demonstrates, the enterprise server market has selected against non-x86-derived architectures in favor of x86/x64 chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Intel Corp.

A notable exception here is zLinux, which -- although not a barnburner in the sense of the volume x64 server segment -- has been an important engine for System z's renewal. IBM would like to pull off a similar feat with PowerLinux.

Like Big Iron Linux, IBM has offered Linux-on-Power for more than a decade. For IBM, it isn't simply a question of offering Linux on its Power servers -- it's likewise an issue of getting customers to use it.

Two years ago, for example, Big Blue offered buyers of its Power Express servers a special deal: buy either of two flavors of PowerVM (its Power-optimized hypervisor) and IBM promised to throw in a free license for the Power version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). That's RHEL with a support subscription. More recently, Big Blue trumpeted the performance of Linux running on its Power 730 Express hardware. According to published benchmarks, Big Blue's Linux-on-Power configuration bested 12-core x64 systems -- running both Linux and Windows -- in a pair of standard benchmarks.

IBM's Linux-on-Power push begs an obvious question: if the market for RISC servers is contracting, and if IBM already fields a RISC-Unix operating system, isn't there a risk that PowerLinux might "succeed" by cannibalizing sales of AIX?

Veteran industry watcher Laura Didio, a principal with consultancy ITIC, doesn't think so. She sees the PowerLinux and AIX markets as separate and distinct.

"Mainstream Linux buyers tend to focus on lower Total Cost of Acquisition ... an aggressively affordable entry-level price that allows IT departments to convince C-level executives that it won't break the capital expenditure budget," she writes. "By contrast, traditional higher end enterprise UNIX/RISC buyers are more focused on Total Cost of Ownership ... over the entire product lifecycle and are not as price sensitive. From a technology standpoint, the UNIX/AIX/RISC customer is more concerned with large-scale consolidation, scalable system pools and enhanced resiliency and security to minimize business risk than their Linux counterparts."

There's an opportunity here, says Didio, but it won't be easy.

"From a competitive standpoint, IBM has scored impressive new customer wins -- particularly from among legacy Sun Microsystems customers. ... IBM will have to work harder, though, to lure customers away from other server rivals like HP and Dell and VMware, Microsoft, Citrix and other x86 vendors in the virtualization space. All of these competitors have extremely, loyal committed customers who are generally very satisfied with pricing, service and support."

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