i Roadmaps: Here Be Dragons
January 26, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
When I was a kid, I was crazy about maps. In my family, even when I was quite young, when someone was lost, they tossed me the map to figure out where on earth we were. My Dad and Mom trusted me with the maps more than themselves, which I didn’t think of as peculiar until later in life. (I think visually. They don’t. My Dad thinks with his hands and can make or fix anything, and my Mom thinks with her mouth, and can cut right to the heart of the matter.) To this day, just about every place I go, I buy a map or pinch a freebie from the tourist information booth or the counter at a restaurant, wherever there is one, and I study it for fun. I took a multi-semester Internet course at Penn State on geographic information systems the same summer my daughter was born, not because I had time, but because I wanted to test out GIS software as well as Internet learning.
Geography has a huge effect on where people live and how they live; towns are where rivers merge or meet the sea, or where two roads cross. And most places I go, I toy with the idea of living there, seeing how I might fit in, which is also fun. I think it might also be a way to affirm that you are already where you belong, if that turns out to be the case.
Maps are serious business, and you need only look at ancient maps with the four winds blowing in from the corners–very few had dragons and other sea monsters, by the way–to know those edges were dangerous. Not because they were the edge of the world and you would somehow fall off into oblivion. I think most people, especially anyone near a seaport who could watch ships go out into the ocean, were bright enough to know the world was round, not flat, regardless of what people in power might say. No, the edges were dangerous because of the unknown. Plain and simple. Apparently, the first map to talk about dragons is the Lenox Globe, which was created in the early 1500s, which you can see here, and which has the phrase “hic sunt dracones” off the coast of Asia. Well, given that there really are dragons there–we call them gila monsters today–this was not meant to spook anyone. It was literal, not symbolic, as far as I can tell. And China obviously has some history and fascination with dragons, just like England.
IT vendors used to talk a lot more–and in a lot more detail–about their product maps, which are called roadmaps because of the car culture that is the Western world. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were dozens of more system vendors than there are today, each with their own variation of processor technology, system architecture, and operating system, knowing where a platform vendor was taking you was an important component of the decision-making and acquisition process. A vendor had to tell you where it was going and where you were being taken. When incremental changes in performance were tough to get into the field–not like in the late 1990s and early 2000s–because Moore’s Law was working on smaller numbers of transistors and only helped push clock speeds a little, a solid roadmap allowed customers to do capacity planning, to make sure their workloads could stay within the performance ceiling of the boxes they bought. Today, there are performance issues, no doubt. But they are of a very different nature, at least until the industry hits a wall at eight-core processors (which I think it will) and everyone really has to rethink the way applications are coded, legacy or otherwise.
Just as I am crazy about maps, being a system watcher as I am, I am crazy about server roadmaps. And like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers when it comes to roadmaps, because vendors don’t usually share this kind of thing with me unless they look like they are going out of business and they want to prove otherwise. Thankfully, one of our compatriots in the AS/400 market has shared the latest Power Systems i product roadmap from IBM with me, and that means I can share it with you. It ain’t long, and it ain’t detailed, but I will give you what I got because, quite frankly, you have a right to know.
If I had to guess, I would say this roadmap was put together to coincide with the October tweaks of the Power Systems lineup, when IBM doubled the core count on entry machines and also did a bunch of other things, a lot of them to the Power 570 to make it more resilient. Anyway, take a look here at page one of the three-page i roadmap:
As you can see, we can apparently expect some memory virtualization announcement as well as tape virtualization announcements in early 2009. I am not sure what IBM means by either, but a number of hypervisors written for the X64 platform are now allowing or will soon allow a hypervisor to overcommit the allocation of main memory used by virtual machines in an effort to make memory use more efficient. Some disk arrays today have something called thin provisioning, which allows you to create a disk volume of a certain size–say a terabyte–but the array is smart enough to know that the operating system and applications that ride atop that volume in the file system don’t actually use that much capacity, and it only allocates what the software stack needs. This way, you can get a bunch of servers linked to the array to think they have lots of capacity, when what they really have is exactly and only what they really need, driving up utilization on the disks. You can do the same trick for main memory in a virtualized environment, even if it does sound more dangerous with two or more virtual machines thinking they have the same memory space to play in. If this is indeed what IBM is up to–perhaps with a patch to i 6.1 and supported by latent features in the Power6 processor, perhaps depending on a new Power6+ processor that has features to support memory virtualization–IBM won’t be the only one doing this.
You’ll notice, but the way, that IBM doesn’t say jack in this roadmap about the Power6+ processor, which is expected this year based on prior roadmaps. Take a look at this one, which was for supercomputers and not i specific:
You can see that Power6 is clearly supposed to be a multicore chip (rather than two cores with Power6) that has higher frequencies than the Power6 and about twice the performance of Power6. The roadmap shows the Power6/Power6+ combo spanning 2007 through 2009, and Power7 not coming until 2010. I have a hard time believing IBM can get clock speeds about 6 GHz. But a four-core, 6 GHz chip should have about twice the bang as a two-core 5 GHz chip. So the math works. The point is, even though this latest i roadmap doesn’t talk about Power6+ processors, unless something has gone radically wrong, we can expect new iron this year. It may be relegated to the high-end of the Power Systems product line, depending on yields IBM gets on the chips. We’ll have to wait and see. In this crazy economy, anything is possible.
Back to the i roadmap. IBM is planning on making virtualization enhancements and simplifying SAN management in 2009 as well. My guess is that the live migration of applications or whole logical partitions between physical boxes that was enabled with AIX 6.1 will make their way into the current i 6.1 or the future i 6.2, whatever IBM decides to call it. If I had to guess, I would guess that IBM will keep patching i 6.1 on Power6 iron and launch a new release, called i 7.1, along with Power7 iron in 2010. This will offer the least amount of disruption to the channel and IBM’s own direct sales force. And if IBM is going to put out releases concurrent with new chip architectures from here on out, as I think it will, then let’s just drop the whole dot release nonsense and call them i 7 and AIX 7. (This way, Intel and IBM can fight it out over the use of the Core i7 brand for the new “Nehalem” Opteron-alike processors it has launched on desktops and will put into servers this year and the use of i 7 for the operating system on the AS/400’s grandkid.)
In 2010, IBM is planning a set of simplification enhancements for the i side of the Power Systems platform that are cleverly called “Easy on the i” and I have no idea what these are. It might mean a Web 2.0-style user and system administration interface, something that is a lot less cluttered than a typical Windows GUI and about as pretty (or not) as a Google screen. IBM is copping to the Power7 in 2010, of course, and this will be an eight-core, hybrid processor that probably runs in the 4 GHz range and that is expected to deliver about 2.5 times the oomph of Power6+ chips and about five times the oomph of the current Power6 chips. That is a lot of processing power, and probably a lot more than a lot of i shops will ever need. IBM is expected to make enhancements to the DB2/400 database to make it more current and support more standards, and to tweak its Power HA high availability software as well. And, as the roadmap says, “and more.”
Now, let’s look at the i operating system support roadmap:
You have seen this sort of picture before, of course. I am really just giving it to you for your future reference. Don’t forget about the end of service for OS/400 V5R3 this coming April 30, and you had better start planning now for when i5/OS V5R4 gets the plug pulled on it at the end of 2010. This most current roadmap shows the next release, which I think will be called i 7.1 or just i 7, coming out at the beginning of 2010, probably concurrent with the Power7 processors and my guess is sometime around the end of January or the beginning of February 2010.
This schedule is more or less consistent with what I heard coming out of the Power Systems Tech Conference last fall, which was to look for an interim i release in 2009 and what we were then calling i 6.2 (but I can’t believe that name will stick) in early 2010.
IBM is also warning customers through the i roadmap about what existing i hardware platforms will be supported by the upcoming release:
As you can see, only Power5, Power5+, and Power6 machinery among existing iron will be supported. Nothing older. And, of course, if Power6+ machines come out they will support this upcoming i release, and so, of course, will Power7-based machines, even though these are not on the above list.
If you have any better information in any roadmaps you have seen, don’t be shy. We all want to have a better idea of where we are going.