Power5 Debuts March 31, OS/400 V5R3 Coming in April
March 22, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Last week, I told you that I had been hearing rumors that IBM was up to something toward the end of this month regarding its future Power5 processors and the “Squadron” servers that use them. As it turns out, Big Blue will be hosting an event on March 31 in New York, where it will talk about its plans for the Power architecture in general and, sources say, will unveil the Power5 processor in particular. But don’t get too excited yet.
According to the thin information I can gather, IBM is not going to be announcing the actual servers using the Power5 processors at that time; and the exact time that it will do so is still largely a secret. As I said last week, the rumors have been all over the map when it comes to actual machines using the Power5 chips, which are also known internally as the “GR” processors. (The first Power4 chip was code-named “Spinnaker” internally and also referred to as “GigaProcessor,” or GP for short. IBM then called the Power4+ GQ and the PowerPC 970 GP-UL, or GigaProcessor Ultra Lite.) About this time last year, the scuttlebutt was that midrange Power5-based machines, based on a single, eight-way multichip module (MCM) and aimed at the Unix market, would debut around March 2004, maybe in April 2004. Then later in 2003, I heard that date had slipped to April or May 2004. As IBM started talking about technical details of the Power5s in the summer of 2003, some people at IBM would only confirm that there were not going to be any Power5 in the first quarter of 2004, and still others would only say that the machines would come out in the first half of 2004 or mid-2004.
The situation may–and I emphasize may–be more complex.
A source I spoke to last week week had heard second hand, from someone who attended IBM’s Systems Group University in Orlando, Florida, in late January, that IBM had told its sales channel and business partners that it would consolidate the Power5-based iSeries and pSeries server lines by the end of the year, and that customers would order one machine and then pick operating systems and middleware as options. I have not–for obvious reasons–been able to confirm this with anyone at IBM as yet. No one wants to talk about it. In fact, only last year, IBM was trying to say this is exactly what would not happen, even though many believe that this is the right strategy for IBM to take in order to simplify its Power-based server product line.
I’ve also had another report from an intrepid reader of this newsletter who was looking over the should of his IBM CE at some confidential documentation that refers to at least two of these future eServer machines as the Model 520 and the Model 570. I have no independent confirmation of these names, and I am merely passing this on in case you hear about them. These names could be completely wrong. As I said last week, I think there is a better than even chance that IBM will go with a new naming convention for the Squadrons that reflects their cross-platform nature. I had suggested “eServer DataCenter 400” for machines running OS/400 and “eServer DataCenter 600” for machines running AIX, which maintains the “400” designation for the iSeries and something approximating RS/6000 and the current 600 series for the pSeries. I also said that “eServer DataCenter 500” series would be a good name for a box that supported OS/400, AIX, and Linux concurrently and equally. It would be funny if this turned out to be the case. You will recall that at the end of 2001, the then-future Power4-based low-end, midrange, and high-end iSeries “Regatta” machines were rumored to be called the iSeries 52L, 52M, and 52H. This naming convention was quashed. It may yet return in some variation.
Some of the business partners I talked to last week, who have been too busy trying to stay in business to listen to the ground for rumors, said that they had heard none of these rumors and that, as far as they knew, IBM was not expected to launch a refreshed iSeries line–whatever it is called–until late summer or the fourth quarter of 2004. As with the past couple of generations of Power4 servers, it may turn out that IBM leads with the pSeries line and the iSeries line doesn’t get new hardware until the Power5 chip is fully ramped. There’s only one problem with this: OS/400 V5R3, which is required for the Power5 chip, is ready, and AIX 5L 5.3, which is needed to run Unix on Power5, is not ready.
In fact, the word on the street is that IBM will launch OS/400 V5R3 before the end of April. The odds favor this edition of OS/400 being supported on machines with 64-bit PowerPC, Power4, and Power5 processors, which share common architectural elements. And now that IBM has severed the hard link between iSeries hardware and OS/400 editions, with the repackaging announced in January 2003, with the advent of OS/400 Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition, IBM can sell new OS/400 licenses to customers with existing PowerPC iron and early generations of Power4 hardware and make that money, even if there is no new Power5 hardware to sell. OS/400 represents a big portion of an iSeries system sale, and selling just the software represents a huge profit–it’s just a CD-ROM, after all. In many ways, IBM’s iSeries managers would probably rather push OS/400 V5R3 into the installed base and stop worrying about hardware, which is less profitable, particularly if Power5 gets delayed. The point is, by separating the selling of iSeries hardware from OS/400 software, the Rochester organization has something to sell regardless of when the Power5 ships. In the past, a hardware delay–like that which the iSeries suffered in late 1999 and up to the fall of 2000–meant IBM had no AS/400 or iSeries to sell, because everything was tied together.
With the Squadron servers supporting three different operating environments–OS/400, AIX, and Linux–IBM has to cut operating system upgrades loose from hardware upgrades. IBM cannot control the upgrade cycle for Linux, and it has not been able to get OS/400 and AIX in lockstep, either. So for the first time in its 16-year history of the OS/400 platform, you will probably be getting new software ahead of new hardware. Maybe well ahead of new hardware, in fact.
The question now is this: Will IBM cut OS/400 costs with every release and version, as the computer industry has done with hardware for the past three decades? (Oh, I can hear you laughing quite loudly.) Logically, this makes sense. Why shouldn’t the price/performance of the software improve over time, like hardware has? This seems extremely unlikely, and goes against the common practice in the business, which is to offset moderate to excessive software price increases with the 30 to 40 percent price/performance increases on hardware every 12 to 18 months or so. But it would be interesting if IBM started treating software in this way. If it did, it would have a very powerful weapon to use against Microsoft, all the Unix players, and even the commercial Linux distributors, which have recently jacked up their prices for software support.
There are always possibilities. Think about it, IBM. And think carefully.