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IBM Lengthens and Broadens AIX Support on Power Iron

Published: May 9, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

This week, obviously in preparation for its impending Power6 server launch this month, IBM announced that it would be tweaking the way it supports AIX on Power-based systems. The new support terms will allow companies to have support for specific release and technology levels--the latter being what the industry usually calls updates--for a longer period of time. IBM is also allowing current AIX releases to support newer Power iron through the application of patches to the current AIX rather than forcing customers to move to a newer release.

The revised support terms will only be available for the impending future technology level update for AIX 5.3, which presumably is being created to support the Power6 servers. As this newsletter reported last week, the Power6 server launch is expected by the end of May, and it looks as though IBM may have moved up the hardware announcement from a planned fall launch to blunt the attacks it is seeing on its Unix base from rivals Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, which have respectable performance and price/performance for the first time in about six years on their Unix boxes.

The rumor mill has it that AIX 5.4 is not expected until this October, so IBM needs to provide some means of supporting the new Power6 iron with the current AIX 5.3 release. Providing a new technology level patch that has support for AIX 5.3 on the Power6 iron is the easiest means of doing that in the short term. IBM would obviously like to have AIX 5.4 out already, as well as the Power6 servers, which were both planned for a late 2006 launch in earlier incarnations of IBM Power server roadmaps. But by early 2006, AIX 5.4 was pushed out to deliveries in the second half of 2007, well beyond the original planned release of Power6 servers in late 2006 to early 2007. AIX 5.3 was about a year late to market when it came out in the fall of 2004, and forced IBM to support AIX 5.2 on the Power5 servers that were launched that year. This is a similar situation. It is likely that support for new features, like the decimal co-processors, VMX vector units, and movable partitions, is making AIX 5.4 come to market a little later. Support for third party applications is also an issue. No vendor wants to announce a new operating system release with no systems software or applications ready and tested on it. With all vendors taking three years or more to get a new operating system in the field, there is no reason for IBM to hurry out AIX 5.4.

The IBM announcement this week does caution customers that such patches will not necessarily give AIX support to all of the processor, memory, and I/O enhancements that debut in a new line of systems, even if it does give support for some features. Read on:

"IBM intends to provide limited support for some new IBM System p hardware on previously released technology levels. Enhancements such as processor speed improvements, new I/O adapters, and new processors within a family (for example, IBM Power5) may be supported on previous technology levels by installing a service pack. Clients can get support for the new hardware by installing a service pack that contains the necessary changes to support the new hardware on a previous technology level. This support will typically only include toleration of the new hardware, not exploitation of new hardware features such as additional page sizes. Exploitation of new hardware features will generally require installing the latest technology level, though in some cases, upgrading to a later AIX 5L release is necessary to fully exploit new hardware features. New hardware that requires pervasive changes will not be supported on previous technology levels. Examples of hardware that would require pervasive changes would include things such as a new processor family or a new I/O bus."

Basically, IBM is making it possible to keep a current AIX release with a technology level update of software alive on new hardware by using a service pack to patch that release with the kernel and driver changes to support the new iron. This is perfectly normal, and it is a wonder that Big Blue hasn't been doing this all along, since hardware announcements and software announcements have been out of phase on the AIX platform for a number of years.

Incidentally, what IBM is not doing is allowing any of the current AIX 5L updates to work on the Power6 iron. You have to be at AIX 5L 5.3 technology level 6 to get Power6 support, so don't think you are going to be able to plunk AIX 5.1 on a Power5 server or AIX 5.2 on a Power6 server suddenly. Going forward, as IBM adds new versions, releases, and updates to AIX, it will allow some prior releases and updates to work on each successive new generation of hardware--provided they have the proper service pack patches added to them. Incidentally, any new systems that come to market from IBM that have an AIX operating system preloaded on them will automatically get the most current version, release, and technology level installed, and IBM is not allowing customers to preload prior AIX iterations on new iron. (It is reasonable to assume that that this rule can be bent by IBM's largest AIX customers, provided there are no technical limitations to supporting prior levels of the AIX software.)

The other interesting thing that IBM did this week is tell customers that it would be providing longer support for each technology level update on future AIX releases, starting with AIX 5.3 technology level 6. Each technology level will have approximately two more years of patch support than is currently offered--some will get a little more, some a little less--and IBM says this is a goal, not an absolute limit. With this move, customers on AIX 5.3 that have a software maintenance contract with IBM will be able to call in for tech support for an extra two years beyond the current end of service deadlines for their particular technology levels. IBM will provide support without requiring customers to move up to the latest technology level patch, until it expires on the longer time schedule that IBM has just provided.

One more thing that IBM is changing: each AIX release has a longer life now, too. Up until now, AIX releases had a life span of maybe eight or nine years. But as of last week, and starting with the prior AIX 5.2 release and the current 5.3 release, IBM is extended the full life cycle of its Unix variant to 10 years of support. The way IBM has it set up, a new version or release is announced and it gets a minimum of six years of usage and fix support under standard software maintenance contracts. After that, a three-year extended support term is available for an additional fee above and beyond software maintenance fees. For the remaining year or more, IBM provides Web-based self-support, which provides documentation and security and other fixes for that release.


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