Q&A with Jim Herring: The View from the Top
November 19, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Q&A with Jim Herring: The View from the Top
For every generation of AS/400, iSeries, or System i servers and the related OS/400 and i5/OS operating systems, there is a person who, more than anyone else, is associated with the technology that IBM delivers. This person has historically been in charge of steering the development of the hardware and software for the product line and managing the operations of the factories that made the AS/400, iSeries, and System i servers and the supply chains that fed them. This is a big job, and for my money, a much tougher job perhaps than that performed by divisional general managers at Big Blue.
Back when I was a cub reporter in the late 1980s, the AS/400 director of product management for the line–forgive me, but I do not recall his name–was the one person I always wanted to talk to at an announcement. I would flip over the press release and announcement letters, corner him for a few minutes, and he would rattle off performance stats on each and every model in the AS/400 line, like a kid calling out baseball stats. With this and other technical information, I could put together a more complete picture of the new line–how it compared to prior generations of machines and how it would stack up to the competition. That analysis is one of the ways I made my living, and the fact that IBM’s chief techies have, in the AS/400 Division at least, been open about how the machine is put together and how it performs is a testament to the pride they take in their work. And since the early days of the AS/400, a number of key people have filled this role–Glenn Van Benschoten, Drew Flaada, and John Reed through the 1990s and early 2000s. They were the shepherds who listened to what the marketeers needed, what the customers wanted, and what the technologists could deliver and wove it all together into each system generation.
In 2004, Jim Herring took over the director of product management for the iSeries line, and this past summer, when the System i division was broken into two bits–Power Systems and Business Systems–Herring not only maintained control over i5/OS and the development of the high-end of the System i product line, but also took over control of the high-end of the System p line, too. The low-end of the System i line is now controlled by the Business Systems division, and is a separate animal. (The whole System p line was merged into the high-end of the System i line to create the Power Systems division.)
Today, Herring’s title is director of high-end Power Systems, and he is sitting in the cat-bird’s seat on the two Power6-based products that IBM has brought to market so far. Herring took some time to talk to us about his new role at IBM and how the Power6 product line is doing so far.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: I wanted to do a quick question and answer interview just to get up to speed on your new position at IBM’s Power Systems division and what is going on in system development area with Power-based machines. I realize you can’t talk about impending products in much detail. I would guess that you have a much broader role in steering Power server development now, beyond the System i.
Jim Herring: That’s right. My role has changed significantly. I still have a pretty big foot in the System i world, and I am responsible for the 570 and 595 machines, but now I have the responsibility to manage the System p products–the 570, 575, 590, and 595. This is a great opportunity in two ways, in that I am picking up responsibility for more products, but I have less operational responsibility.
TPM: Who is managing the System i manufacturing operations if you are not any more?
JH: The Power Systems division manages manufacturing for the high end of the System i range, and Business Systems, the other new division, manages manufacturing for the low end of the range. For the high-end System i stuff, my counterpart in System p picks up that responsibility–that’s Jim Poeghje–and my former operations manager, Steve Carr, who now works for Business Systems, has responsibility for the low-end machines as System i manager.
TPM: Where do the Power machines get manufactured these days?
JH: Rochester, Minnesota, and Dublin, Ireland, are the two sources for all System i machines and for all System p machines except for the 590 and 595, which are manufactured in Poughkeepsie, New York. There’s a rather arcane reason for this. I get a kick out of this. So, the System p 590 and 595 comes with 24-inch I/O enclosures, which are sourced in Poughkeepsie. The System i 595 uses 19-inch drawers, which are sourced in Rochester.
TPM: How come the System p engineers didn’t go with standard dimensions?
JH: You mean why are they different? [Laughter.]
TPM: No. I chose my words carefully.
JH: All System i customers expect to be able to upgrade between models, and all of our I/O drawers are 19 inches wide. And I honestly don’t know the reason why when we went to common packaging back in 2001 and 2002, the System p side chose 24-inch I/O drawers.
TPM: I was hoping to get you to talk a little bit about the uptake for Power6-based systems. How is the Power6-based 570 machine being adopted?
JH: I have to tell you, I am not usually very surprised about what goes on because I have been with the AS/400, iSeries, and System i brands for so long. But the takeup on the 9406-MMA, which is the System i version of the Power6 570, has been just outstanding. Honestly, we had apparently fairly modest plans for that machine’s sales in September, just because it was so late in the quarter. There’s this theory that System i clients are conservative about introducing new technology, and yet we significantly exceeded our forecast for systems for Power6. So we have made the switch from Power5+ to Power6 very quickly, and that demand has continued in the fourth quarter. We had a great October for those systems–again exceeding forecasts–and November is looking very good as well. I am extremely excited about how fast Power6 is being taken up, and it has been a pleasant surprise.
As you already noted in your story, we have already shipped more than 1,000 9117-MMAs, which are the System p Power6 570s, and that is doing extremely well in the market, too.
TPM: Is IBM expecting a similar kind of uptake across the board when Power6 processors are put into a revamped System i line next year? Is there pent-up demand for the Power6 processor in general, or is this demand just for high-end systems?
JH: Normally with System i, we see a big bump–and in fact, I think you have chronicled this yourself–when we move to new technology within a model. It usually takes two to three months for it to ramp, and then this new system almost completely replaces the earlier product. What was surprising about the 570 is how fast this happened. I am not as experienced with the System p line, but I know that when we launched the System p Power5 590 and 595 back in the fall of 2005, it was very quick there, too. I am personally expecting a fairly quick ramp when we introduce the rest of the Power6 platforms, just because of the market’s reaction to the Power6-based 570.
I think the thing that has surprised us most about the Power6 machines in the System p space is how many of them are being sold with virtualization included. We include virtualization in the base System i product in either Standard or Enterprise Editions, but with the System p 570, you have to purchase virtualization separately. I do not know the exact number, but I think that over half of the machines are being purchased with virtualization included. I am not sure what you are seeing in the Unix market, but this is pretty good penetration.
TPM: I don’t think anyone is doing any better than that. IBM was saying at the end last year that it had a total of 30,000 server footprints with virtualization installed, including both Power and mainframe boxes in the count, and this was one of the largest bases of virtualized servers in the world.
JH: I have a much better chance to talk to System p clients in this role, and I have to tell you, all of them are looking at what you can do with virtualization now with wide eyes. They are excited about what it is going to do for their IT infrastructure and the flexibility it is going to provide. We have had some early adopters, and I think we are really on the leading edge of this.
TPM: How does that compare with the uptake of virtualization among System i shops?
JH: It is interesting that you ask that, because I think that the System i is probably two to three years ahead of the System p curve. I don’t know of a System i 595 that we have ever sold that isn’t partitioned–there might be one or two in the world. And of the 570s that we have sold in the System i brand, over 75 percent of them are partitioned.
We introduced partitioning a little earlier on System i than on System p, back in 1999 in fact. It really did not come out on the System p line until the Power5 machines in 2004. So we had a four- to five-year headstart, and I think a lot of our clients were utilizing that capability to consolidate through the early 2000s.
Most System i clients are trying to sort out what the use of virtualization means in terms of high availability. They are so used to having their box be so reliable that they consolidate a lot, but they now have a lot more eggs in one basket. So they are looking for cost-effective ways to provide the highest availability that they can. We are maybe three or four years in back of the mainframe on the same gauge.
TPM: What kind of development organization do you manage at this point? Does IBM Microelectronics hand you finished processors and then you build operating systems and servers?
JH: I actually have the assignment of what we at IBM call project management. I am very heavily involved in the start of the product cycle with respect to defining requirements all the way down to the processor level and all the way up to the software level. I work with the marketing team, obviously, and with the true developers, who actually create things. And then development kinda takes it from there, and we shepherd the activity, but for the most part, the signature developers take over and build the products. Then I really start getting involved again when the product is getting ready to be manufactured, goes into system test for the first time, and we get ready to start launching the product. I am very involved with the ramp toward general availability and to the launch itself.
TPM: Are you beginning a Power7 systems development cycle now, or does that begin well before Power6 gets out? What is the staging for development of successive generations of Power servers?
JH: We have been working on Power7 for months now.
TPM: And Power8 will start happening six months from now, when you will want to be thinking about where you want to go conceptually on the whiteboard?
JH: Yeah, I would think so. What usually happens with a future Power processor technology is that once the lead technologies are freed up from the current product under development, which is in this case Power7, then the smart guys get to the whiteboard and work with our IBM Research team to figure out what the art of the possible is as well as working with the strategy team within Power Systems to figure out where the market is moving to, what the required systems features are going to be.
I will tell you that with Power6, I think that we nailed the two things that were going to be hot–no pun intended–since one of them is energy management. We did a very good job of predicting what was going to happen in the industry because of the explosion of server capacity in data centers, and we looked forward and knew it was going to have a very heavy energy pull. When we were working on the Power6 chip back in 2003 and 2004, we were looking out four years in advance to where the industry would be. We put a lot of logic in the system and then followed it up with software to manage the system from an energy perspective.
The other area we nailed with the design, of course, is virtualization. This ability to move an active partition from one system to another system is big. The early adopters of this technology are just ga-ga over it.
TPM: Will the System i have this live migration capability? There are two different kinds of partitions and migrations.
JH: We have not announced this capability yet, but it is on our roadmap. As you might imagine, i5/OS is a more complex operating system than AIX, and the fact that we have this single-level storage paradigm going on makes it a bit tricky, too. It is a little harder to do. But I will tell you this: I want to put this functionality into i5/OS as soon as I possibly can.
TPM: Are you doing betas for i5/OS V6R1 right now?
JH: Actually we just began shipping the code this week.
TPM: How big is the beta program for i5/OS V6R1?
JH: We usually are in the hundreds of copies, not thousands. I don’t know the exact number. We’re in the hundreds because we do a lot of monitoring of feedback. Unlike other vendors, who have a lot of testers but limited feedback and defect support, we actually survey the clients once a week to see how their plans are progressing, what kinds of problems they are finding, and what functions they are using. So we get a very good handle on what is being used out there.