Consultant Says: I See i on Blade Servers
June 7, 2010 Dan Burger
Blade servers running the IBM i operating system are few and far between. Why is that? Shouldn’t this technology be slashing into data centers big and small? Apparently not. Or not yet anyway. Just because there’s no rush to get on a blade server doesn’t mean the idea should be written off. But the slow adoption of blades makes me wonder if Zorro would even want one of these.
Zorro, the blade-wielding, masked outlaw, was out of the country, so last week I had a chat with Brad Ford, a blade-wielding, unmasked consultant. I found Ford while perusing the session grid for the upcoming OCEAN Technical Conference scheduled for July 16 in Irvine, California. Ford is presenting a session called “Why or Why Not i on a Blade.”
Ford fits the bill as an average IBM i guy because he’s been around long enough to remember when the AS/400 was fresh out of the box. But he’s an i guy who has kept up with the technology along the way. His primary interest is on the hardware and the operating system, not so much in programming. He’s worked as a consultant for several IBM business partners and now has his own consulting company called i400 Technology.
In 1998, Ford joined the team that writes the IBM certification exams for hardware topics that business partners are required to pass. That got him a ticket to Rochester in 2008 for some early hands-on experience with blades. He learned what was involved when configuring a blade in a BladeCenter chassis and how to use the Virtual I/O Server and the Virtual Partition Manager.
An early sign that i/OS wasn’t going to cut it on a blade was when Ford asked the developers how they planned to deal with tape drives.
“The answer was that we don’t have tape support yet,” Ford recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t expect to sell any of these until you get tape support, because i/OS people live and breathe by their backup. Until you have a tape option and I can do a save–live to a tape drive–you aren’t going to sell these things.’ And they didn’t. They put it out in March or April 2008 and tape support was supposed to be coming the third quarter of that year. I don’t think it arrived until 2009.”
Ford’s observations are that most of those early blades were sold into development shops, but few were put into production environments.
From a product development point of view, it may have been a wise decision to allow some shops to test drive blades and work through some of the complexity issues, but the marketing got a little ahead of the game and turned out selling more sizzle than steak, at least for those who prefer i-based solutions. Being able to say there’s a blade solution seems to have trumped having a blade solution that was fully tried and tested, an attribute expected by the AS/400 faithful.
Blade sales involving i/OS are picking up, but I wouldn’t go so far as saying they are picking up steam. As i 6.1 and now i 7.1 gains acceptance, blades will, too, but Ford has much more to say about where it will fit into the plans for midrange shops.
“I don’t see blades going into shops to replace low-end servers in small offices,” Ford says. “A lot of low-end boxes were originally sold as turn-key systems that went with a software vendor who had an ERP package. The system is small. It gets plugged into a network with six people in the front and a warehouse in the back. They have an ‘IT person’ who knows how to do PCs and has some networking skills. The AS/400 goes in, sits in a corner, and just runs. When there’s a problem, they call tech support with either the software vendor or the business partner that supplied the hardware. If you put a BladeCenter into a shop like that, it’s the kiss of death. A BladeCenter requires knowing heavy networking, heavy SAN storage, plus an understanding of virtualization and the i operating system. That’s overwhelming to a small shop.”
And the Power-based blade servers that slide into the BladeCenter chassis are not a good fit for the high-end shops either, Ford says, because they do not allow the aggregation of each blade’s horsepower. There is a lot of horsepower there, but not in comparison to a large, shared memory Power 570 or Power 595 machine.
That leaves the middle portion of the midmarket.
Ford’s message to companies that are interested in BladeCenter technology is to be aware of the diversity of technical skills required outside the i/OS environment and that those skills will factor into the total cost of ownership.
“You have to be ready to handle it,” he says. “You have to have people to get it up and running and then maintain it. Cost of ownership has always been something that’s looked at in the i environment. In this case, it’s not just the cost of acquiring the hardware and putting it in place. The typical shop with an AS/400 heritage views hardware and operating system administration as a part-time job. But the technology that goes along with BladeCenter involves full-time people with some pretty good skill sets who can run bigger servers, SAN storage, and virtualization. It’s a different TCO than before because of the people it takes to run it.”
The annual people costs will exceed the cost of the hardware, in Ford’s estimation.
For companies that already have several people doing desktop support, along with others who have experience building storage area networks and advanced networking like a Voice over IP system, Ford says they will have no problems with blades.
“What mountains have you already conquered?” he asks those who ask him for advice.
Shops with storage area networks, a staff with networking skills, 20 to 50 servers in a data center, and the need to acquire an i-based application have the perfect fit for a BladeCenter as Ford sees it. He’s seen that recipe work.
When it comes to installation advice, Ford says a lot of trouble can be avoided by updating as you go.
BladeCenter S has three modules: the Ethernet module, the SAS module, and the management module. Downloading the updates in the correct order begins with updating the firmware for each module before loading the updated Virtual I/O Server (VIOS) from the CD. Ford says it’s not uncommon to have something other than the latest edition of VIOS, so make certain of that VIOS is current. Take this step before configuring the SAN and updating the SAN firmware. Then load the i partition.
“It used to be that you installed the base across the board and then updated each of the modules,” Ford says. “Today, you have to update VIOS or you will have problems loading the i software. Don’t assume that the CD you use to load any of this is up to date. Update firmware and software on everything.”
Ford predicts blades will become a factor in hosting environments. Ford provides technical support and remote system administration that doesn’t require him to be physically on the customer’s box for 99 percent of the work he does. And he foresees companies hosting applications, on an S chassis, for instance, with the capability to have six environments at a reasonable cost. Even single blades can be partitioned to create isolated environments for small organizations.
“There’s not a lot of this is happening yet,” he admits, “but I think we are on the knee of the curve.”
Ford’s “Why or Why Not i on a Blade” session is one of 30 sessions on the OCEAN Tech Conference agenda that features six subject tracks: Power Programming, New Technology, PHP, Infrastructure, Web Development, and Vendor Showcase. The speaker list includes subject matter experts such as: Jon Paris, Susan Gantner, Craig Pelkie, Dave Brown, Jeff Olen, and Mike Pavlak.
The registration fee for this one-day education and training event is $145 for members of OCEAN or any other IBM Power Systems User Group.