Is the Smart Cube the New i?
November 3, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
While I have been watching IBM for longer than I have done just about anything else in my life except watching Penn State football and marveling that I can get paid to do the job I do, even after all these years, sometimes Big Blue does something that surprises me. Sometimes, the surprise is caused by the company’s utter stupidity, or incompetence. Sometimes, it is the genius of its engineering. Sometimes, it is just the way IBM puts something and then the coffee comes out my nose.
So it is with announcement letter 108-904, which you can read here for yourself. This announcement, which I think is telling us about the future “Blue Business” SMB platform that IBM has been working on for more than a year, based on the i and Linux platforms, had a hilarious opening.
IBM Smart Cube Power System 520 -- NO ANNOUNCEMENT LETTER IBM United States Hardware Announcement 108-904 October 21, 2008 The purpose of this announcement is to provide IBM Smart Cube Power System 520 (8203-E4A) zero priced hardware feature support. No announcement letter will be generated.
The letter, which is obviously an announcement letter for a server line called Smart Cube, available starting November 21, is not an announcement letter. Just remember that as we go over all the details in this, er, announcement. Which has not yet been announced. In a letter or anything else. Even the one I have in my hand. Got it? (I am thinking someone somewhere must have gotten fired, drunk, or both at IBM for this letter to be published.)
Anyway, as best I can figure from the descriptions IBM has been giving me for more than a year, this Smart Cube server is the commercial name for the “Blue Business” project that the Business Systems division, the part of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group that markets machinery to small and medium businesses (as distinct from the Enterprise Systems division, which sells anything that a big company wants to buy to IBM’s 6,000 largest customers, and that is usually mainframes, racks of X64 servers, and big Power Systems configurations), has been working on in secret. The Business Systems division doesn’t, technically speaking, make anything–its servers come from the Modular Systems division, which makes X64 rack, tower, and blade servers, and from the Power Systems division, which makes Power-based AIX, Linux, and i servers.
The hardware is not particularly important to IBM; selling boxes that don’t have Windows and that are based on Power and maybe X64 technologies is what IBM is focusing on with the Blue Business platform. Think of these more as server appliances that are hooked back into IBM and that all of the applications available for the Blue Business box (presumably to be called the Smart Cube) are configured to use the IBM software stack and a consistent electronic support methodology. That’s an AS/400 on steroids.
Back in May, at the Business Partner Leadership Conference, IBM debuted the backbone of the Blue Business platform, an application framework that operating systems, systems management, database, middleware, and application software all plug into so they use a common set of APIs and a common toolkit that will enable the remote management, patching, and updating of the entire solution–including the applications themselves. This framework, which apparently is named the Smart Business Application Integrator, will also allow remote services to plug into locally hosted applications residing on a box of some sort for remote applications to be linked to local applications as well. The intent is to make the delivery of services, such as disaster recovery or data replication, transparent, as well as to automate the patching of the stack of software in a solution and the monitoring of the underlying hardware. The framework also has features to keep track of how users are defined and configured for the different kinds of software on the box, which will presumably allow for better and more accurate per-user software fees–and even on real-time, utility-style pricing. The Blue Business platform is also expected to include an online marketplace with Amazon-style user ratings called the Global Application Marketplace.
Here’s the official description of the Smart Cube, from the non-announcement non-letter:
The IBM Smart Cube is a powerful and integrated server (server family) designed to run the business applications (finance and accounting, ERP, CRM, IP telephony, and others) that a small to medium-sized business needs, with virtually no IT complexity. Smart Cubes remain connected to IBM’s Smart Market that offers remotely delivered services, including help desk and solution support, monitoring, backup and recovery, security, and business collaboration.
IBM Smart Cubes come with the preloaded IBM Smart Business Software Pack that includes what you need to run business applications and workloads.
IBM Smart Cubes offer many serviceability and ease-of-use features designed to enhance the support experience for clients. The IBM Smart Business Software Pack includes wizard-based application management and problem solving interfaces that can be extended to vendor application software prepared specifically for this environment. Clients will have the option to configure their solutions to automatically find and install new fixes. The Smart Desk, included in the Smart Cube, provides a single consistent interface to manage, license, administer, and maintain business applications.
The underlying hardware platform for the Smart Cube comes in three configurations, and all are based on the Power 520 server with one, two, or four cores activated. (This is the new box, product number 8203-EA4 that can run i, AIX, or Linux and that uses 4.2 GHz Power6 cores–not the earlier Power 520 i Edition box.) IBM tosses in a software stack on top of these Smart Cube machines (which may or may not come in a normal tower case and probably are not intended as rack machines); it is called Smart Business Software Pack for i V1.1.0, which strongly suggests that it is based on the i 6.1 kicker to OS/400 and i5/OS. (The actual release for the Smart Cube might be i 6.1.5.) In fact, it looks like you buy the software stack above and you get a freebie Power 520 server, which is what IBM was trying to say. (Your accountant is going to depreciate it all the same way, of course.) Smart Cube support requires a high-speed Internet link, so forget about using a dial-up modem, and the machine automates backups and includes autonomic server management. The email and groupware is based on Notes/Domino and the Lotus Symphony suite is also on the box to provide a server-centric, Web-based set of office productivity tools that are Office compatible.
Pricing information for the Smart Cube software stack was not announced. But then again, neither was anything else I just said. Sort of.