Virtualization Engine: A Lot of IBM Talk, but Good Technology
May 3, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
IBM hosted its semi-annual IT analyst meeting on its campus in Palisades, New York, last week. The focus of the event was something called Virtualization Engine. As we told you it would a few weeks ago, IBM is putting an uber-brand, Virtualization Engine, around various server, storage, and software technologies in order to simplify and focus the marketing message for its IT platforms.
While many people will dismiss such marketing efforts as silliness, this kind of thing has worked for IBM in the past. A trip down memory lane reveals two good examples.
In August 1997, IBM coined the term “e-business.” The name stuck, and Big Blue made countless billions of dollars on former chairman Louis Gerstner’s contention that Web-enabled business was difficult and serious stuff that only an industry leader like IBM could understand.
Similarly, the “eServer” marketing campaign, to unify IBM’s formerly five different server lines in October 2000, has helped IBM to pitch its server products better by presenting a common theme that runs across all types of servers. While the Sequent line of NUMA servers did not make the cut, the remaining xSeries, pSeries, iSeries, and zSeries lines share common attributes, such as the ability to run Linux and use logical partitions. By keeping customers focused on what its platforms have in common, IBM can focus on selling itself as a server company with options, rather than four different server companies with a common headquarters. The result of the eServer campaign was, in fact, a merging of IBM’s different server products into a common hardware platform, and all of its server lines share a great deal of processor, chipset, memory, packaging, and other technology. The merged brand has preceded the merged products.
And over time, perhaps by the Power6 generation, in late 2006 or early 2007, IBM is expected to merge the hardware embodied in the Power-based iSeries and pSeries midrange and enterprise servers with the zSeries mainframe line. Exactly how IBM will accomplish this is unclear, but what does seem clear is that IBM wants to get back to the System/360, where it had one computer spanning a broad range of power and running many different platforms. IBM created the System/360 (the original “write once, run anywhere” platform) in a stroke of genius in 1964, and it is moving back in that direction out of economic necessity, since keeping four different hardware platforms alive is a very expensive proposition in the 21st century.
The Virtualization Engine marketing campaign and rebranding is a bit vague and disingenuous, like eServer was in late 2000. But it points out where IBM wants to take customers, as well as what marketing edges the company thinks it can cut deals with. In this regard, it is very real.
What IBM is talking up with Virtualization Engine is, in fact, the very sophisticated logical partitioning and virtual LAN technologies that the very bright engineers at IBM’s iSeries laboratories in Rochester, Minnesota, cooked up over the past three years to give that midrange machine capabilities not found in competitive Windows and Unix products. The iSeries had been able to have up to 10 Linux partitions and up to four OS/400 partitions per physical processor, with logical I/O and storage for two years. As I have written several times in the past, it is this iSeries technology that is being expanded into a general-purpose hypervisor that will allow hundreds of logical partitions to be put on a single Power5-based “Squadron” server. IBM may characterize this as “top secret” technology that has been in development for three years, but it is only a secret to the people who ignore the iSeries and all of the many stories about how the iSeries and pSeries Unix servers would be converged and share this virtualization technology.
IBM’s own promotional material for Virtualization Engine will say that this partitioning and virtualizing is based on stuff from mainframes, because everything good in the IBM world has to come from Poughkeepsie, New York. But this is not entirely accurate. To be sure, IBM mainframes have had partitions since the late 1980s. But they are not nearly as elegant as the ones in the IBM midrange boxes today. Moreover (to give the Minnesota engineers their due), without IBM Rochester, there is no commercial DB2 relational database, no advanced memory technologies in IBM servers throughout the 1990s, no 3.5-inch disk drives with magneto-resistive heads, no 64-bit PowerPC or Power processors, and no modernized logical partitioning that is really at the heart of this so-called Virtualization Engine.
Virtualization Engine, as a market basket or a marketing umbrella (pick your metaphor), includes more than logical partitioning. IBM is rolling out a cross-platform implementation of the IBM Director software that it created to manage its xSeries Intel-based servers and its BladeCenter blade servers. This software, called IBM Director Multiplatform, will be able to control IBM and non-IBM platforms. IBM is also expected to eventually roll out a cross-platform workload manager that can interface with the individual workload managers in its z/OS, OS/400, and AIX platforms, as well as Microsoft‘s Windows and the open source Linux platform, which it loves so well. Another facet of this Virtualization Engine will be the Globus Toolkit and its WebSphere application server. The ThinkDynamics provisioning and virtualization technologies, which IBM acquired last year and is rolling into its Tivoli line of systems management programs, are also going to be a major component of this Virtualization Engine.
On the platforms that it does not control, the GSX Server and ESX Server virtualization technologies from EMC‘s VMware division will play a big role on Windows, Linux, and NetWare platforms; and when Microsoft rolls out its own Virtual Server 2004 partitioning software later this year, IBM will probably roll that into the mix, too. If IBM is unhappy with the capabilities of the VMware or Microsoft products, seeing as though IBM has plenty of deep knowledge of the X86 architecture, and has plenty of good virtualization technologies, it is even conceivable that it might create its own virtualization software for Xeon and Opteron X86 servers. If IBM thinks it can do this and steal money and profits from EMC, you can bet there is a business plan floating around Westchester County, New York, with this idea on it.
The reason why IBM is even bothering with this whole Virtualization Engine business is that the IT industry wants to see higher utilization rates of resources. And only new IBM gear is going to have the virtualization technologies that allow this to happen. After customers move to virtualization technologies in the next two years, it is going to get a lot harder for IBM to sell them more computing capacity, because they will consolidate down servers and platforms and will run at 70 to 80 percent efficiency instead of 10 to 15 percent efficiency. Any server vendor counting on a killer app that will make customers consume six to seven times more computing power, in order to drive up their top lines as customers embrace the virtualization technologies that allow them to do a lot more with a lot less, had better start doing some advanced planning for 2007 and 2008. A lot of server revenue streams are going to head south if the virtualization technologies embodied in this Virtualization Engine take off as IBM hopes they will. IDC and Gartner would be wise to take a second look at their server revenue forecasts.
As for when any of this technology will be available, all IBM will say is that the first bit of Virtualization Engine technologies will be in the new iSeries servers that are expected to be launched in the second quarter of this year. But, as I just explained, OS/400 shops already have a virtualization engine–whether they know it or not.