Volume 19, Number 27 -- July 26, 2010

Wanted: An AS/400-Centric System of Systems

Published: July 26, 2010

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

IBM had the right idea all along, perhaps, but lost it somewhere along the way--maybe when the AIX people took over the Power platform three years ago and stopped listening to what the OS/400 people were saying. That idea, which was a competitive reflex to the intense competition coming from low-cost X86 servers in the early 1990s, was to turn the AS/400 system into the central management hub and database server for X86-based co-processors running NetWare, OS/2, Windows, and Linux.

It was with great interest last week in New York while attending the System zEnterprise 196 server announcement--which IBM is billing as a "system of systems" or a "data center in a box," alternately--that I listened to the top brass now in charge of systems talk about how this was an industry first. As if the File Serving IOP announced with the last generation of CISC-based AS/400s in 1994 did not exist, and as if its successors--the Integrated Netfinity Server, the Integrated PC Server, and the Integrated xSeries Server--did not have a long and useful life even before IBM decided it could not afford to do engineering. Why the RS/6000 folks did not see the benefit of an integrated X86 and then X64 machine is not clear, but I can tell you that it did take some work to make a chip fit on the co-processor card and by then the IBM server heads had fallen in love with the BladeCenter blade server. It provided the same account control that the integrated PC processors did and was a standalone product that had already been engineered for data centers that needed superdense Xeon or Opteron serving, and eventually Power serving. Which is how we eventually ended up with iSCSI links between Power Systems servers running i and System x boxes running Windows or Linux as the hybrid Power-X64 environment of choice for the IBM midrange.

As I wrote back in May in a story called IBM Systems: The Foundation for Glass Skyscrapers, the minute you let a proprietary architecture under the skins of your server, you are admitting that your own architecture, whatever it is, cannot compete in some way, be it the breadth of operating system or application support, performance, or bang for the buck. IBM never admitted this with the original FSIOP, and it sure didn't cop to it with the zEnterprise 196 mainframe announcement last week, which allows a single 80-core mainframe rated at 50,000 MIPS support eight BladeCenter chassis linked through private 10 Gigabit Ethernet networks (that's up to 112 Power7 or Xeon blades) as something approximating a single system.

I say approximating because the machines are physically distinct and live in separate racks; the blades in a standard 42U rack and the System z196 in the custom behemoth that. Here's how IBM's schmarketing envisions it:

When I heard about IBM integrating Power7 and X64 blades with its future mainframes back in May, I was thinking of something with a bit tighter coupling than two private 10 Gigabit Ethernet links between the mainframes and the blades for data exchange and management. While the Unified Resource Management extensions to the Systems Director stack will no doubt make it easier to manage external AIX and Linux servers, the machines are no more tightly coupled than what companies can build today. Moreover, IBM does not support i on the Power blades or Windows on the X64 blades. I can understand the former, but the latter seems insane given the fact that Windows is the dominant server platform in the world by shipments and volumes. IBM has not really explained this yet, but the lack of Windows support on the zBlade Extension blade setups, which will be sold as mainframe iron, not System x iron, might have as much to do with the similarities between the Linux-based Hardware Management Console used by IBM to control z/VM partitions on mainframes and PowerVM partitions on Power blades and the expected KVM hypervisor (controlled by Red Hat) to be used on the X64 blades. Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor and Systems Center management console is not only very different, but also closed source and therefore IBM has to partner with Microsoft to add Windows to the System z196 "system of systems."

I expected more from the System z196 announcement, to be honest. Being able to control over 100,000 virtual and logical machines from a single HMC and with a single set of tools is cool. But I expected high-bandwidth, low-latency networking based on InfiniBand, which is native to the mainframe and Power Systems iron. If IBM was only going to support Linux on the X64 blades, then it could have done that on the Power blades and used the on-chip GX+ buses on both the z196 mainframe and the Power7 processors to truly couple the processor complexes together. It could even have allowed for Linux images to flow back and forth between the high I/O, low CPU mainframe-based Linux slices and the high-CPU, low I/O Power Linux slices as conditions dictated. (For all I know, that comes with the next generation.)

For better or worse, Windows is a fact of life at nearly all AS/400, iSeries, System i, and Power Systems i shops. And just like IBM needed a FSIOP in 1994 to better serve AS/400 shops as well as to blunt the attack of X86 server makers, today Big Blue needs to create an AS/400-centric "system of systems" to help simplify IT infrastructure at OS/400 and i shops and to give the OS/400 side of the OS/400-Windows hybrid a chance to exert some control. (That's what the System z196 is really about: giving mainframers a way to assert control over sprawling Unix and Linux infrastructure--Windows infrastructure if IBM swallows its pride and works out a way to get Windows integrated.)

A Power7-based server with very cheap Linux logical partitions and some integrated Windows servers would do the trick for most i shops. I think most AS/400 shops want rack servers and would be happier with tightly linked X64-based rack servers and storage for the whole shebang. They have modest needs, ones that could be met with a few servers and some fast networks. The point is to extend the Navigator tools (or whatever they are called this week) to let admins easily cope with physical and virtualized X64 servers, running atop Red Hat's KVM and VMware's ESX Server hypervisors and possibly Citrix Systems' XenServer. The pitch would be the same--giving customers a data center in a box. And in exchange for the greater account control Big Blue is getting through such setups, IBM should give customers a huge price break.

What's good for the moose is good for the gander. So if there is a System zEnterprise 196, then there should be an Application System 98.

If you want to read about the new System zEnterprise 196 mainframes, I covered the systems over at The Register here and I went through the processors and interconnect chips at the heart of the new mainframes there.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
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