Lotus Foundations and Smart Cube i: Brothers or Clones?
November 17, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As I told you a few weeks ago, IBM is apparently cooking up a server called the Smart Cube that is based on its Power 520 hardware, the i 6.1 or a kicker operating system, and a stack of application software. This machine, which may have been under development as the “Blue for Business” platform, which I have reported on for the past year, seems to have a sibling: the Lotus Foundations Smart appliance.
Last week, IBM provided a preview of the Lotus Foundations Smart appliance, which is actually a kicker to an existing set of systems and application software that currently runs on non-IBM hardware that is aimed at small and medium size businesses. And the description of the box sounded very suspiciously like the Blue for Business platform, which we have been told would be based on a mix of the i and Linux platforms. The funny bit is that this particular appliance is not coming from the Systems and Technology Group, or specifically from the Business Systems division that aims to sell machinery to SMBs, but rather from the Lotus division within IBM’s Software Group.
Yeah, I know. What’s the deal?
Here’s the deal. In January, IBM bought a Toronto appliance maker called Net Integration Technologies, which had created its own variant of Linux called Nitix and which had an OEM agreement with Big Blue to bundle the Domino email and groupware server atop that Linux and within server appliances. Throughout 2008, the Nitix team, which was acquired by the Lotus division, has been working on a kicker application stack and Linux environment and has also been given free rein to create a new hardware platform on which to run this appliance stack. The idea is the same as what NIT was trying to sell, which I can put simply in this manner: Network Applications for Dummies.
Take a look at the box. It might look familiar to you in some ways:
You remember this one from nearly a decade ago:
According to Caleb Barlow, who is senior product manager for the Lotus Foundations product line at IBM, the appliance is based on an X64 processor (we don’t know if it is from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices); it is not clear how much memory is in the box, but Barlow says that the machine can hold up to seven 1 TB disks. A revamped and cut-down Linux operating system, based on Novell‘s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10, runs on a flash disk embedded in the system and including the Linux kernel and print, file, and Web servers as well as a virtual private network, a firewall, and a MySQL database. The whole thing only weighs in at 100 MB of capacity.
IBM’s Domino server loads onto the machine as well, and so will, IBM hopes, a slew of Domino applications, which will be enabled through a toolkit called the Smart Business Developer’s Kit. The SDK provides a consistent framework so applications can be downloaded from IBM’s central support systems and loaded and maintained in a consistent way. Think of it as the AS/400’s breakthrough electronic customer support (ECS) from 1988 on steroids. The system doesn’t have a monitor or a keyboard, and is smart enough to connect to a network, get an IP address, set up its firewall and VPN, and after being assigned an IP address in the IBM back-end systems that take care of the appliances (which is done by having end users tell their resellers the IP address that shows up on an LCD screen on the front of the box after the appliance roams the network and gets one), it can download software and add it to the machine.
IBM is not providing pricing on the Lotus Foundations appliance yet, but Barlow says that a five-user system will cost somewhere around $5,000. The machine will scale to support up to 500 users–and clearly they won’t be concurrent users, because I have a hard time believing there is more than one processor socket in the box. Even with a quad-core processor, running a Domino stack plus all those other services on a network will require a certain amount of oomph.
For customers who want to run Windows applications on the machine, IBM has embedded the shareware VMware Server hypervisor, which runs atop the modified SLES instance on the flash drive and allows a Windows guest to be put on the X64 processor inside the box.
To keep the box inexpensive, IBM is manufacturing the Lotus Foundations appliance in its factories in China. And you can bet that all the resellers who are being asked to sell Smart Cube servers based on Power6 processors and the i 6.1 operating system will also be taking a hard look at selling the Lotus-made appliance as well.
There seems to be no advantage that the AS/400 or its successors will ever have that IBM won’t give away to another group, division, or unit. It may turn out that the Smart Cube machine is really aimed at running back office applications rather than network infrastructure workloads. So IBM might be envisioning that customers have a Lotus Foundations machine for the infrastructure and a Smart Cube for running “finance and accounting, ERP, CRM, IP telephony, and other” applications, to quote that non-announcement announcement letter I told you about two weeks ago. But that Power6-based box, derived from a Power 520 server, has all of the same capabilities of the Lotus appliance, including Domino for collaboration and the Web-based Symphony office automation suite. So maybe not.
It will be interesting to see how Business Systems with its Smart Cube and Lotus with its Foundations appliance both go into the SMB channel and differentiate these two boxes. The main point, I presume, is that IBM wants to steal some business from Microsoft as well as beefing up its server sales–in terms of volumes more than revenues–against its X64 rivals.