Bettin’ on the Blade
May 4, 2009 Dan Burger
Will the BladeCenter serve the IBM i community along the same lines as the AS/400 served the System/38 community? It could happen. And if you are Ian Jarman, manager of Power Systems software, you make the crossing from “could happen” to “will happen.” Moving from the current BladeCenter on i installed base of several hundred to thousands and tens of thousands seems like a long row to hoe, but Jarman says the pieces are coming together.
In typically IBM i fashion, there’s no rush in putting all the pieces on the table. After all, the i community does not welcome abrupt changes. Even though blade servers are one of the fastest growing segments in the overall server market, that trend has little or no bearing on the folks who still prefer to call their server The Four Hundred, even though IBM has renamed that server multiple times since the AS/400 nameplate was introduced in 1988. Blades are still in the early phase of adoption. About 10 percent of all server shipments these days, across all architectures, are in blade form factors, so would anyone who has been around the IBM i platform since the days of the AS/400 expect to see changes made that early in the lifecycle of any data center product? No, no, 400 times no. There’s no such place as the short term.
“In the i server marketplace, we view the investment we are making much more in the medium term,” Jarman says. “And by the way, the capability that we just delivered with the virtual tape support and SAN in the BladeCenter S are key components for the growing numbers of clients who want a BladeCenter solution. We are in the early stages of developing the blade market given that we just delivered the virtual tape support right now.”
Jarman was speaking during an interview with IT Jungle last week at the COMMON 2009 Annual Conference and Expo in Reno, Nevada. Commenting on the long-term vitality of the Power i platform, Jarman emphasized that the integration with blades is “tremendously important” to the future of the i platform in smaller deployments.
According to the IBM product executive, the big wheels steering Power Systems see “enormous promise” for i in the SMB market. “What differentiates IBM BladeCenter solutions is the ability to integrate popular Power6 blades, which have just been expanded to an eight-core blade,” Jarman notes. “It [the i] has great long-term potential.”
That sounds like a tune IBM executives play each year at COMMON, the largest gathering of AS/400, iSeries, System i, and Power Systems i believers outside of Rochester, Minnesota, hometown of the box that continues to defy critics who have wildly and repeatedly predicted its demise. Undeniably, the platform has been on a slide, with new customers few and far between and existing customers questioning IBM’s support.
IBM’s favorite marketing buzzword these days is “dynamic infrastructure,” and, Jarman says, as customers, business partners, and ISVs think about it, a dynamic infrastructure could be a BladeCenter. “It means one box that can run everything that’s needed,” he says. “It makes sense rather than having separate machines for separate tasks. We think that people looking at a small deployment of IBM i will be attracted to a BladeCenter solution because those customers have Windows and other servers,” which obviously should be consolidated into one platform if possible.
But as virtualization builds momentum and server consolidation becomes more widespread, how much of an incentive will there be for SMB customers?
“People on the X86 side of IBM System x and BladeCenter talk about the chassis on BladeCenter S being kind of a breakthrough concept for them along the lines of the AS/400, because it integrates storage and multiple environments. It’s a huge deal for them,” Jarman says.
The huge part of the deal may actually be in the hands of the IBM i ISV community. These vendors, who have long depended on their single-platform applications to pay the bills, have been broadening their software portfolios to include other platforms, most often Windows.
The BladeCenter offers ISVs a way to package applications without the locked-in, platform-specific shackles that can cost sales. This opens the doors, as an example, for an ISV in the banking environment to provide “a bank in a box” suite of applications that run on a mixture of platforms. The anchor, where the back-end systems run, will still be the i operating system.
“Many of the ISVs, unlike 20 or 30 years ago when they were specialized on one operating system, now have a portfolio that is cross-platform,” Jarman says. “They are looking at competing for the next banking customer. They need to offer all their solutions whether they are point solutions or back-end banking solutions on an easy-to-deploy system for small banks or credit unions. A lot of these ISVs see BladeCenter as a competitive angle.”
The consolidation story has been told and retold for years. Blade servers could be the innovation that keeps the AS/400 applications in the middle of things. When businesses have an IT closet with a jumble of different servers stacked up, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone trying to run a business.
If you look at it in terms of any industry where the AS/400 had been a dominate force for a long time, you find customers and vendors that want to simplify. With mergers and acquisitions playing a role in bringing together disparate systems, simplification of multi-platform environments becomes necessary.
Some ISVs have tried to do this from the software side by unifying a customer base on a single platform and some have encouraged the elimination of the AS/400 and other platforms as part of that scheme. And some have paid the price for trying that, too. Remember when SSA and JD Edwards tried to move their installed base off the AS/400?
Jarman refers to that approach as a strategy that consolidates on the lowest common denominator.
“What some software companies have discovered is that they lose the differentiating value that gave their applications and solutions a competitive advantage,” he says. “The core value is tied to the IBM i and the resiliency, the scalability, and the robust nature of the application, plus the features built into the system like the integrated database.”
The banking industry provides another example.
“Most people want to run their core banking solutions on IBM i or mainframe and they want that rock solid, robust, and secure implementation,” Jarman says. “It goes beyond the hardware. You have to look at the operating environment. People in banking trust the operating system to be secure and robust. These remain differentiating features. But businesses need other applications as well.
“The point for us is that Power Systems has moved IBM i into the mainstream so that we can have this conversation. Previously, we couldn’t discuss putting i into a BladeCenter type of environment. Now the discussion includes i and whether the BladeCenter should be full of Linux servers or a combination of specialty appliances for a particular core environment.”
The road to server consolidation has not been an easy one for AS/400 users, beyond collapsing multiple OS/400-based servers onto one box with logical partitions. It’s not been frequently traveled either. Economic circumstances have certainly changed and perhaps there is a greater emphasis on both simplification and cost savings.
Jarman estimates there are thousands of clients using integrated Windows servers with IBM i. That’s not a number that will blow you away or provide a confidence boost that the future holds a great deal of promise when it comes to server consolidation.
If you want to give IBM credit, as Jarman does, for “pioneering the hybrid system concept,” the trail that was blazed is faint. Not only are Windows server consolidations on i rarely seen, the number of servers consolidated are not monumental.
OK, the technology was not designed for companies that have hundreds or thousands of servers. It was designed for organizations that have five or 10 Windows servers within IBM i-centric operations. This has always been and will continue to be a server consolidation plan that involves a half-dozen or a dozen Windows servers. It’s not going to eliminate large server farms that consolidate on i.
“If you look at the value provided by bringing Windows and i together, you find storage management,” Jarman says. “That’s not storage on an individual server basis, but storage in a virtualized environment on i. That virtualized storage concept was available only in storage area networks and was only accomplished at very large System i clients. Now storage area network technology has come within reach of many smaller IBM i clients. Today what you see is an alternative to the integrated approach. People can use SANs for their Windows servers. That is part of the reason we have been investing in SAN support.”
Configuring an IBM i BladeCenter to consolidate Windows servers still seems to be easier said than done and I don’t see virtual storage as being much of an accelerant to BladeCenter adoption. I guess I should keep in mind that this is no horse race and there will be more pieces to put on the table.