IBM to assault users with virtualization technology

Hit over head by abstraction

IBM this week created a product out of a marketing term, announcing plans to roll out a suite of goods to link servers and software from various vendors called the IBM Virtualization Engine.

Sadly, the Virtualization Engine appears to have some nasty marketing elements still swirling about it. IBM bills the product set as "advanced cross-platform technology meant to vastly improve the economics and industrial-strength operations of IT." Loosely translated, this means IBM will begin planting pieces of Virtualization Engine in various software and hardware products, hoping to improve overall data center management. High priorities with the technology include managing hardware from different vendors with IBM software and being able to run more applications on single servers.

The Virtualization Engine is just an extension of what IBM has been doing on the storage side of the house with its SAN Volume Controller and SAN File System products and what the industry has been doing as a whole.

Companies are trying to develop management software that can tap into any kind of hardware from any vendor and chop that hardware up like never before. This generally entails creating software that divides servers and storage systems into fine partitions and then layering management software on top of the boxes that automates typically manual configuration tasks.

Despite what vendors claim, we're still at the very early stages of this process. Big boys such as IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and EMC are racing against smaller firms to pump out actual products that work as billed.

Concrete example

At present, IBM is only previewing the Virtualization Engine technology. The technology will appear first in a new set of iSeries servers due out in the next two months. Then, later this year, IBM will include the technology with a new line of pSeries Unix servers and later with xSeries servers, storage systems and software products.

The most concrete example of the Virtualization Engine technology being provided by IBM is a new class of partitioning technology for the upcoming Power5-based servers.

At present, customers can only create one partition per processor on Power4-based pSeries and iSeries boxes. When the Power5 systems rollout, however, customers will be able to create up to 10 partitions per processor. Customers will also be able to divvy up bandwidth between partitions.

This type of technology is somewhat of a mainframe copy. IBM's zSeries systems can run almost countless partitions and share networking resources.

The technology is also similar to what Sun has rolled out with its N1 Grid Containers - another virtualization play. Not only can Sun customers create limitless numbers of partitions, they can do so with one image of the operating system.

"IBM's are primarily firmware-based partitions, each of which runs its own copy of an OS," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. "Solaris 10's N1 Grid Containers, on the other hand, are essentially a hardened form of a resource group, many of which run atop a single OS copy."

Sun can offer a cost-savings over IBM, but analysts say the company must show its technology is as reliable as IBM's proven code to be successful.

"Sun clearly has to prove itself," Haff said. "There are potential efficiency advantages (i.e. lower cost), but it's a new and quite different approach."

Marketing term

Another part of the Virtualization Engine plan is IBM's decision to merge its server management products into a single product called IBM Director Multiplatform. Customers will be able use the same software to control IBM and non-IBM gear, clusters and grids. In addition, Unix, Linux and Windows boxes can all be controlled via the same console. HP last year made a similar move, first reported here, with the Systems Insight Manager product.

IBM also plans to include parts of its Tivoli Provisioning Manager software with the Virtualization Engine line. This software controls application provisioning and performance monitoring.

In addition, IBM will ship a package called the Grid Toolbox for Multiplatforms, which is designed to create grid computing systems with hardware from various vendors.

While IBM bills these products as being aimed at all vendors' gear, it does appear to have a preference for certain vendors. Customers will need at least some IBM servers to run the code - as most of it requires AIX - and IBM storage is preferred. The operating systems supported are AIX, SuSE, Red, Windows and Solaris. HP customers be gone.

We'd provide more concrete details, if they were available. At present, IBM has provided no pricing for the Virtualization Engine package. In fact, it will only say the products outline above "may" be part of the total software suite.

IBM garnered a fair amount of press for this announcement, but given these shaky terms, we fear it's still more marketing that actual product. IBM has basically laid out the bits and pieces of its technology arsenal that fall under the virtualization header. ®

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