IBM to port KVM hypervisor to Power-Linux iron

Does spit and polish on Power Systems lineup

IBM announced at the Red Hat Summit in Boston this Tuesday that it will support the KVM hypervisor on its PowerLinux machines to help boost its competitive position against x86 iron.

In addition, since Big Blue wants and needs to sell more Power Systems rack and tower iron as well as their brethren in the PureFlex modular system lineup, at its Edge customer and partner conference in Las Vegas – down the street from HP's Discover shindig – IBM got out the Q2 marketing playbook as well as rejiggering some of the Power-based server lineup.

IBM already said back in March that it will embrace the open source OpenStack cloud controller for its SmartCloud public cloud, and also eventually replace its SmartCloud Entry cloud controller, which it sells to companies to manage private clouds based on x86 and Power machinery, with OpenStack.

OpenStack and KVM are seen together a lot out there on the clouds. They are not married, but they are definitely friends with benefits.

IBM just released a statement by email as El Reg was going to press, and there is not a lot of detail about their plans as yet with regards to KVM on Power. But they did say that they intend to make KVM available on its PowerLinux machines, which only support Linux from Red Hat or SUSE Linux, and cannot be loaded with AIX or IBM i.

IBM has a KVM lab in Beijing, China, which opened in November 2012, and opened up a second one in New York earlier this year, and presumably they will be doing the porting work in conjunction with techies at Red Hat. KVM is slated to be available on PowerLinux machines late next year.

IBM PowerLinux 72R server

PowerLinux servers: soon sporting the KVM hypervisor

IBM also said at the Red Hat Summit that it would open Power Systems Linux Centers in Austin, Texas, and New York City to help developers port Linux code to Power7+ machinery. IBM opened the first such center in Beijing a month ago. New York, of course, is a financial services center, and Austin is the home of Power processor development. Beijing is the new capital of capital, of course.

Power Systems enhancements

IBM launched the Power7+ processors in the upper part of its Power Systems range last fall, and then refreshed the entry and midrange boxes with the chip this February. That is pretty much it for major processor upgrades until the Power8 chip, which could come out in late 2013 or early 2014. (IBM has not said.)

The 32-socket Power 795 big bad box, which came out in 2010, is still using Power7 chips and did not get a Power7+ update. IBM often does not update the high-end of the line with the "plus" chips, but considering all of the memory compression, hashing, and other algorithms in the Power7+ chip, maybe that was not a good strategy. No matter, IBM is going to goose the memory chips in the Power 795 machine to try to make up the difference.

Specifically, IBM is moving to 4Gb memory chips that first debuted on the Power 770+ and Power 780+ machine last year, which are twice as dense as the 2Gb memory chips used in the first round of Power7 machines, including the Power 795. IBM is keeping the capacity of the memory cards using these chips the same, but obviously now you need half as many chips, which cuts down on the electricity bill two ways – powering the main memory and cooling it. IBM is also radically slashing prices on main memory for the Power 795 to bring the pricing in line with the Power 770+ and Power 780+ machines.

The way IBM does memory pricing on the big machines is like this: you buy a fully populated card, which plugs into the system bus and which has all of its DIMMs slotted in for the capacity, which comes in at 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB capacities.

The 32GB card costs $61.25 per GB, while the other cards cost $120.64 per GB. Then you have to pay another fee for each gigabyte of memory that is activated to be used by the AIX, Linux, or IBM i operating system. In this case, it is $256 per GB. With the new cards for the Power 795, IBM is charging $17.20 per GB for the 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB cards and $66.40 for the 256GB card, plus $185 per GB to activate memory.

Assuming that customers want to activate about half the memory on the card, leaving the remaining half to be activated during peak workload times on an on-demand, hourly rental basis, this works out to be about a 50 per cent discount on a card with 128GB capacity with 64GB activated.

The Power 795 tops out at 256 cores, 1,024 threads, and 16TB of memory – plenty fat enough to compete with the biggest shared-memory machines out there.

Customers with latent memory capacity on existing Power 795 machines should obviously demand the same pricing. By the way, as long as you are at the most-current firmware level in the machines, you can mix and match old and new cards inside of a single Power 795, but you can't mix the old and new memory on a single socket.

The Power 795 is also getting a new GX++ remote I/O drawer adapter, which is a variant of Double Data Rate (DDR) InfiniBand that Big Blue uses to lash disks and other peripherals in outboard enclosures directly into the processor complex. The new GX++ card crams two converged Ethernet slots that run at 10Gb/sec into the adapter if you want to pipe storage directly into the processor.

IBM is also delivering promised two-port 16Gb/sec Fibre Channel to the Power 770, 770+, 780, and 780+ machines, as it promised it would do in February when the company came out with the entry and midrange Power7+ machines. These Fibre Channel cards carry about a 30 per cent premium over their predecessors, but have twice the bandwidth per card. Ditto for a promised Ethernet card that has two 10Gb/sec ports that can run Fibre Channel over Ethernet along with two additional Gigabit Ethernet ports for good measure. Depending on what you compare it to, this card saves you around 60 per cent compared to buying two separate cards.

On the PowerLinux front, IBM is adding Solarflare's high-performance and low-latency 10Gb/sec Ethernet adapters to its PowerLinux 7R1 (single-socket) and 7R2 (two-socket) boxes. The most interesting Solarflare cards have a field programmable gate array (FPGA) embedded on the network. Using a development environment called Open Onload they can be trained to do all kinds of data manipulation tasks on information before it even gets to the servers – a key capability for high-frequency trading, and a necessary component if IBM wants the Power iron to compete against x86 iron. IBM requires Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.4 on the PowerLinux machines to use the new Solarflare cards.

IBM is also pitching its PowerLinux machines married with Hadoop, and a special layer of Java messaging software as a better big-data muncher than plain-vanilla Hadoop running on x86 iron.

Platform Computing has been part of IBM for a couple of years now, had a Java messaging platform called Symphony, and just before Big Blue ate Platform back in October 2011, the grid computing innovators figured out a way to make the Hadoop MapReduce method of chunking and processing unstructured data run on top of Symphony.

As part of the festivities at Edge, IBM is showing off some results of the TeraByte sort benchmark:

IBM claims Power beats x86 iron on the TeraByte sort benchmark

IBM claims Power beats x86 iron on the TeraByte sort benchmark

IBM is telling partners and customers that the higher thread count on its Power7+ chips (four per core compared to two for Intel Xeons) is one reason why Hadoop runs faster on Power iron. Their other reasons include higher I/O bandwidth in the Power machines (I find this hard to believe), and a highly optimized Java virtual machine. In the long run, IBM will replace the Hadoop Distributed File System with its own General Parallel File System to boost performance even further.

IBM is also bundling up its own application software on top of Power Systems iron – yes, IBM is in the application software business after a few decades of hiatus, to the chagrin of many of its ISV partners.

Specifically, IBM has bundles of its healthcare software (which manages patient care), marketing software for retailers, and its various analytics and business intelligence software (including BigInsights Hadoop, InforSphere Streams, Cognos, and SPSS, as well as code from SAS and SAP).

Another bundle, called the AIX Solution Edition for Analytical Decision Management, marries the AIX operating system, PowerVM hypervisor, and DB2 Enterprise Server with BLU Acceleration loaded up on Power 710+, 720+, 730+, or 740+ servers. No other details were available at press time about these bundles.

Last but not least, IBM is offering customers with its IBM i operating system a price break on a bundle of its PureFlex modular systems and their operating systems when they decide to upgrade to the new iron.

There are a lot of IBM i shops out there with old Power5 and Power6 servers who also have a mix of x86 servers, and Big Blue is hoping to get them to upgrade to Flex p460 nodes with Power7 (not Power7+) processors and to consider moving their x86 iron under the PureFlex skins and under the control of the Flex System Manager control freak for servers, storage, and networking.

The PureFlex-IBM i bundle has a four-socket p460 server node with two eight-core Power7 chips running at 3.3GHz; all of the cores are activated. The machine has IBM licenses on five of the cores – and these are not cheap by any means.

There is an integrated Storwize V7000 storage array with all the appropriate RAID, snapshotting, and provisioning software on it, as well as a single two-socket Flex x240 server node with Xeon E5 processors to support Windows or Linux workloads. With the rack, Flex Chassis, redundant switches, and five days of lab services to help install it, the list price on this bundle is $202,349, but IBM is cutting the price by 22.3 per cent to $157,206.

Why all this talk about Power Systems from Big Blue?

The Power Systems business may be king of the Unix hill, but the earth movers have come by recently and damned near leveled it to a hillock. As El Reg previously reported, the box counters at Gartner reckon that only 27,973 RISC and Itanium machines running Unix shipped in the first quarter of this year, falling 38.8 per cent after stomaching years of this kind of decline, and revenues across all Unix vendors fell by 35.8 per cent to $1.42bn.

IBM might have nearly 60 per cent market share after HP and Oracle have seen declines over a longer period of time, but neither HP nor Oracle have wafer bakers to pay for that, and also just lost out on the latest rounds of game consoles – devices that used to employ Power processors and help keep the fabs in East Fishkill, New York warm.

Even though its Power7 and Power7+ machines do run Linux, the Power chips are obviously not binary compatible with the x86 iron that dominates the Linux and Windows markets that represent three-quarters of system revenues these days. Even when IBM tries to compete directly with x86-Linux boxes using Power iron by offering special Linux-only machines with deep discounts on memory and disk capacity, this hurts its margins in the Systems and Technology Group.

From the late 1990s through the middle 2000s, IBM had a vast and lucrative base of customers running its proprietary OS/400, i5/OS, and IBM i operating system (those are three names for the same thing as it has evolved over time), with its integrated database and third-party applications. However, after years of what can only be characterized as predatory pricing, Big Blue has knocked the installed base for its proprietary customers down so far that it has had to start being fair and square with them, charging roughly similar if not identical prices for hardware and software on AIX and IBM i.

The problem is, the base is so small – maybe 150,000 customers – and their computing requirements so relatively modest that IBM cannot make it up in volume.

The wonder is not that IBM wants to sell its System x rack, tower, and possibly BladeCenter blade server businesses to Lenovo Group. But rather how IBM will be able to sustain itself in the systems racket even after it offloads its x86 server business.

It would get a few billion dollars out of such a deal, should it go down, but you can bet that CEO Ginni Rometty is not going to reinvest that in making Power chips and systems more competitive. Or buy an ARM server chip supplier and scare the hell out of everyone. Or do something else radical and forward-thinking.

No, Rometty is going to tell CFO Mark Loughridge to go downtown to Wall Street and buy IBM's stock to boost earnings-per-share figures. Hopefully former strategy chief and now Systems and Technology Group general manager Tom Rosamilia has a better plan to keep IBM in the systems business. Otherwise, let's just change its name to International Business Software and Services and get it over with.

Instead of appreciating that it is an underdog in a hollowing-out midrange server market and putting forth a robust roadmap that shows how Power Systems will be able to compete – and do so profitably – against ever-better Intel iron, what IBM did this week instead is cut a few deals, do some bundling of hardware and software, and goose some of the internal hardware on the existing Power machines. All of this is still good news for customers in the short term, but it is just marketing. It is not technology, and this server hack still believes in technology.

The best technologies market themselves. The trick is to come up with them and price them correctly from the get-go. The System/360 in 1964 did this (maybe a little too well, hence the antitrust issues), and so did the AS/400 in 1988. That's why those machines, with different labels and radically different guts, are still around today. ®

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