The Rumor Mill on IBM’s Impending Platform Announcements
January 21, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
A year ago, when it was just becoming clear that IBM was going to take longer to get its Power6-based server platforms to market than many had expected, there were plenty of rumors going around when IBM would get its revamped System i and System p iron and their respective i5/OS V6R1 and AIX 6.1 operating systems to market. As we headed into summer, mainframe customers heard that the new z6-based machines were coming, and they held back spending, too.
There’s just no question at all that IBM had planned to have the Power6 processors and their servers into the field in late 2006, and that problems with Power5+ processors and very likely the complex issues of updating i5/OS and AIX for the very different Power6 chips pushed the roadmaps for Power6 iron out into 2007. Even with that pushed out roadmap, people were expecting Power6 iron in late 2007, and IBM rejiggered an existing 570 server platform, retrofitting it with the Power6 chip and providing basic support for the operating system with patched versions of AIX 5.3 and i5/OS V5R4 in May and July 2007, respectively. IBM has contended that there is no issue with the Power6 chips in terms of design or manufacturing, and yet, here we are with a substantially unchanged product line. To be fair, IBM did get AIX 6.1 out the door in November after six months of beta testing, timing the launch with the delivery of the first Power-based blade server, the JS22, which uses Power6 processors. And IBM did in July preview i5/OS V6R1 and put it out for beta testing, too, making promises to deliver V6R1 in 2008 (not specifics) and having it run on the new blades as well as on rack and tower servers based on earlier Power iron. Even with these delayed product roadmaps, however, the market has been expecting a real Power6 product line in early 2008. Which is now, basically. (See IBM’s Rumored System i Power6 Server Plans.) According to some sources, IBM was expected to launch the “real” Power6 server line in maybe January but probably February of 2008.
Last week, when IBM’s chief financial officer, Mark Loughridge, briefed Wall Street on Big Blue’s financial results for the fourth quarter of 2007, he said made it clear that IBM was going to put the mainframe at the head of the line. Loughridge said that IBM would be launching new mainframes in late February, presumably based on the quad-core z6 processor, that would ship in late February and that would deliver a 50 percent performance bump for customers (much as the jump from Power5+ to Power6 does for System i and System p processors). He added that during the first quarter that IBM would deliver new entry System p machines based on the Power6 chips, and that during the first and second quarter, the remaining System i and System p products would get the Power6 chips.
Loughridge didn’t say anything about i5/OS V6R1 being launched, but I heard only a few weeks ago that IBM was planning a big shindig at the end of January to wrap together a bunch of system announcements. Presumably, the availability of V6R1 is part of that, and that running it on the JS22 blade server will be the big focus. IBM may have pushed this announcement out to February, given the rejiggering of its system product development groups and the launch of new customer-facing marketing groups that sit between the product divisions and customers and their channel partners. (See A New Year, A New IBM Systems and Technology Group for more on that.)
Back in June 2007, I did a story revealing what the future Power6 machines were expected to look like. No one is certain if these are the machines that Loughridge is referring to, but it seems likely. And it also seems likely that some of the processor feeds and speeds could change, depending on Power6 yields. The future 9407-615 server is expected to use a 3.5 GHz Power6 chip, while the 9408-625 will use a faster 4.2 GHz Power6 chip. The documents for the entry System i machines show them having six small form factor disk drives and five PCI-Express peripheral slots. They may also have InfiniBand ports, or they may not. The 9409-655 server will use a 4.7 GHz Power6 chip. These are the same three clock speeds that IBM is offering in the modified System p 570 server right now; the System i 570 just uses the 4.7 GHz chip to keep it simple. (That 570 box was given a new processor card and a new memory and I/O subsystem to make use of the Power6 chip in the same chassis that the Power5+ chips plugged into.) In all three Power6 machines, according to this source, each Power6 core will be allocated with six DDR2 main memory slots, giving a single processor card up to a dozen memory slots. With 4 GB DIMMs, that puts main memory at 24 GB per core, but most customers will want to use cheaper 2 GB DIMMs, which IBM is almost certainly going to offer on these “real” Power6 machines. IBM will be offering 667 MHz DDR2 main memory, and might offer slower memory for customers worried about heat. The new Power6 servers will also be equipped with a new service processor based on Big Blue’s own PowerPC 440 embedded processor, said this source.
There will obviously be a larger 64-socket Power6 machine to replace the high-end System p 590 and 595 and System i 595 servers, and IBM has promised to allow system upgrades (important for accounting reasons) from these older machines to the new Power6 box, presumably called the 695.
Why this is taking so long is a bit of a mystery. My guess is that the microcode changes IBM is making underneath i5/OS V6R1 turned out to be a little more complex than it anticipated. (Some of these changes have to do with new features in the Power6, and some are just changes IBM thinks need to be made in the virtualized computing environment that resides below the compilers and the Technology Independent Machine Interface that is a defining feature of AS/400, iSeries, and System i servers.) And ditto for all that neat new live migration and workload partitioning that IBM is cooking into AIX 6.1. These features were expected as a patch for AIX 5.3 back in late 2006. Clever software always takes longer to deliver than clever hardware. It is ever the way with systems.
And so long as IBM’s rivals are all relatively late with updates to hardware and software (as is the case with everything in the market except Intel with its quad-core Xeon chips for two-socket servers), Big Blue is perfectly willing to take a breather and take its time to get the kinks out of this complex software underneath i5/OS V6R1 and AIX 6.1. You know that all of the new general managers of the Enterprise Systems, Business Systems, and Modular Systems units, who are new to their jobs and facing customers and partners, are not eager to push something out the door early; the same holds true for the executives in charge of Power Systems and the System z and System x product divisions. They now how a firewall between their development teams and the customers who use their products, and they will not feel the same pressure to hurry up that IBM’s sales teams are feeling. They are being judged on the quality of the products they deliver as much as on the timing.