IBM to push Linux apps on Power iron in China, then elsewhere

If you want to peddle boxes, you have to sell the ISVs first

IBM is opening a Power Systems Linux Center in Beijing, China, in the hopes of getting more local ISVs interested in its Power Systems iron and luring them away from x86-based systems. With the Power Systems business taking it on the chin in IBM's first quarter – revenues fell 32 per cent compared to a year ago – you can bet that Big Blue is trying to light a fire under its Linux-on-Power efforts.

That's a tough row to hoe, and one that IBM has been engaged in with varying degrees of intensity over the past fourteen years since former CEO Sam Palmisano caught the Linux bug back in 1999 just before he took over running the company.

Palmisano's replacement as CEO, Ginni Rometty, is now at the helm, and the company's Systems and Technology Group is bleeding red ink as mainframe sales stall and Power Systems revenues continue to wane with the Unix market.

One response, explained IBM CFO Mark Loughridge on the call going over IBM's Q1 numbers, is to make Linux more appealing on Power iron, and the establishment of a Linux center in Beijing is one of the efforts Loughridge was referring to.

IBM has been selling Linux-only Power machines, known as PowerLinux boxes, since last April, which were the same iron as regular Power Systems machines but with the prices for processors cut a bit and memory and disk cut a lot to try to close the price gap between Power machines and Xeon servers running Linux.

At the time, IBM reckoned with its Power7 machines – as it did when the entry and midrange rack servers were refreshed in February using its eight-core Power7+ processors – that the Power-based machines had a considerable performance advantage, and therefore the bang for the buck for a Power-Linux box was considerable.

Here's IBM's latest comparison between the two-socket PowerLinux 7R2 and HP's Proliant DL380p Gen8 and Dell's PowerEdge R720:

How IBM stacks HP and Dell x86 boxes against its PowerLinux

How IBM stacks HP and Dell x86 boxes against its PowerLinux

In terms of raw SPECint2006 performance, the IBM box has about 23 percent more oomph, and IBM claims that its PowerVM hypervisor for Power processors is more efficient than the VMware ESXi hypervisor is for x86 processors, and that the gap is more like 65 per cent in a virtualized environment.

In effect, it takes three Xeon two-socketeers to do the work of two PowerLinux 7R2s, says Big Blue, and that leads to a 42 percent total cost of acquisition advantage for the Power-Linux combo.

Pity that Big Blue's AIX and IBM i shops won't see that cost advantage when they add Linux slices to their servers because the big advantage with PowerLinux machines is that memory costs nearly five times as much on PowerLinux boxes as it does on regular Power Systems machines, and disk capacity costs anywhere from two to three times as much, depending on the drive type and density.

In addition, IBM got Red Hat to offer a special deal on Linux support contracts for the Linux-only PowerLinux machines, one that costs less than on x86 servers and also less than on plain vanilla Power Systems machines, as well.

That's the background and the backdrop for the opening of the Linux-Power development center that IBM is opening in China. As El Reg has said before, the IBM name still means something at companies in the emerging markets, and perhaps equally importantly, many governments and companies are making their first big infrastructure decisions, and that means platforms like Power Systems and even System z mainframes and their equivalents from HP, Oracle, and Fujitsu have a better chance than they might in the slow-growing economies of North America and Europe, where the platform battles have been fought and there is a kind of détente in the data center, with x86 servers accounting for most of the boxes and about two-thirds of the money.

You have to have the pricing and performance right if you want to attract the software developers to port their applications to that platform.

The commercial Linux distributions from Red Hat and SUSE Linux have around 2,500 applications in total that are certified to run on Power processors, and IBM and other ISVs collectively have around 1,600 more applications that are run on Power iron. That's the count of the top-tier ISVs that have a global reach, explains Chuck Bryan, team leader for Linux for Power Systems at IBM.

But within each region of large countries – such as each province in China, to be specific – there are hundreds to thousands of local ISVs who have relationships with governments and countries in those regions. And then there are hundreds of other ISVs who might be doing data analytics, writing applications to run on top of Hadoop, or with expertise in a specific industry, such as healthcare. The Linux-on-Power center in Beijing is about engaging this next level down of ISVs, who frankly are often closer to the customers who are making system acquisition decisions anyway.

IBM has ported its BigInsights variant of Hadoop to Power-Linux, and it has not been ported to AIX – although there is no technical reason why it could not run atop AIX. But Bryan says the goal is to leverage the Apache Hadoop community and stay close to its release cycle.

The Platform Symphony Java messaging platform, which is popular in the financial services industry and which was rejiggered to support the MapReduce APIs of Hadoop and run them a lot faster two years ago, is also going to be available on Power machines running Linux.

IBM is also getting ready to launch a variant of the OpenStack cloud controller, which Big Blue has committed to using on its own SmartCloud public cloud, for Power machines running Linux.

The Power Systems Linux Center has a slew of Power7+ iron, ranging from low-end Power 720+ to midrange Power 750+ servers, and Bryan says that if IBM needed to, it could get a big bad Power 795 running Linux into the center if an ISV needed it for application porting and testing.

The center will have 30 dedicated Linux and systems experts on hand to help ISVs port their code. IBM plans to put a Power Systems Linux Center in North America at some point, and is looking at putting them in other growth markets and maybe Europe, as well. There will probably be eight or so when IBM is done.

What Bryan could not be specific about is how much business Linux-on-Power in general and PowerLinux systems in particular are driving at IBM and what the expectations are for the future coming down from CEO Rometty.

"A little, and a lot," quipped Bryan, before giving a more serious answer and, in IT vendor fashion, not very useful answer. "We expect Linux to be a large part of our business," he said.

It is hard to imagine Linux driving more than 5 or 10 per cent of Power Systems units – not counting the BlueGene/Q supercomputer line, of course – before the PowerLinux machines came out a little more than a year ago. The PowerLinux machines may have helped boost the business a bit, and may even be hurting IBM's margins a little in Systems and Technology Group. But the mainframe is supposed to mask that, as are sales of regular AIX and IBM i systems based on the same Power iron as the PowerLinux boxes.

IBM needs to sell all the Power chips it can make if it wants to be able to keep that fab in East Fishkill, New York, from sliding (economically speaking) into the Hudson River. Big Blue has to, in other words, make it up in volume. ®

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