IBM i To Ride The Coattails Of Linux On Power
September 23, 2013 Timothy Prickett Morgan
I have said it before, and I will say it again. And probably again after that. Anything that makes the Power Systems business stronger lets the IBM i platform live a lot longer. And it is with that spirit that we should all greet IBM‘s announcement last week that it will be pumping $1 billion in investments in the Linux operating system running on Power processors.
It is always hard to tease out details on such big pronouncements from any vendor, but Jim Wasko, who is director of the Linux Technology Center in IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, says that this is a net new investment that will be spread over the next few years. The funds are being allocated to boost the capabilities of the Power Systems Linux Center in Montpellier, France, which will join other centers established in New York City and Austin, Texas, as well as the one just established a few months ago in Beijing, China. Each of these cities is important for different reasons. Austin is the heart of Power Systems and AIX development, and New York is the center of the financial services sector in North America and is where an awful lot of Unix iron has been shifted over to Linux in the past decade. The center of gravity of tech development is shifting from Taiwan and Japan toward China, and that is because it is so much less expensive to do design and manufacturing in China (at least for now) than it is in those other Asian countries.
Part of the funds, says Wasko, will be used to provide capacity for the Virtual Loaner Program, which is a cloud that IBM has set up in Dallas to allow independent software vendors who have applications running on other platforms to port them to Power Systems iron running AIX, IBM i, or Linux. IBM used to give ISVs cheap iron for a low monthly rate in days gone by but has shifted to cloudy capacity in recent years instead of physical machines. This is a lot less expensive for IBM, of course, even if it might be less fun for ISVs who liked having cheap servers to play with.
Wasko is not at liberty to say how much of the $1 billion is dedicated to co-development and co-marketing funds for ISVs to port their code from X86 platforms running Linux to the Power-Linux combination, but he did confirm that this is a an important aspect of the investment. I would guess, in fact, that this is a very big part of the $1 billion that IBM will spend on Linux-on-Power development in the next three to five years. (The exact spending rate is not being etched in stone by Big Blue, but is rather fluid based on conditions in the field.) What is clear is that IBM needs to port more of its own systems and applications software to run on the Power-Linux combination and it needs to convince more ISVs–especially regional ones that serve key industries in growth markets–to port their X86-Linux applications over to the Power platform.
IBM could have, of course, just used the QuickTransit emulation software that it acquired nearly five years ago to emulate X86-Linux apps on Power, and that was the plan when Big Blue bought Transitive, the company who created it back then. IBM monkeyed around with this emulation for a bit, and then created a Power Systems lab in England three years ago with the Transitive people at the heart of it and we never really heard from it again. Personally, I would love for IBM to add an X86 emulation layer to the Power chips, as China is doing with its homegrown “Godson” MIPS RISC chip variants and then use some of the smarts of the Transitive software to finish the job in software.
The problem with this emulation approach, of course, is that no matter what, there is a performance penalty, and IBM’s whole deal with the PowerLinux machines is that it can meet the Intel Xeon server price and meet or beat it on performance. With emulation overhead, not to mention added complexity, this would make a Power-Linux sell that much harder even if the application porting would, in theory, be easier. Getting ISVs to maintain two versions of their code can be done, but it takes convincing. As everyone in the IBM i ISV community is surely well aware of.
IBM’s goal, ultimately, is to get the Power Systems business growing again, and IBM clearly believes that it can and will get more growth from Linux, not from AIX or IBM i. Linux represents about a quarter of server revenues these days, and is one of the few platforms that is showing growth. IBM wants to get Power rising on that Linux tide, and of course, that will help fortify the future for both IBM i and AIX.
It sure beats the alternative, which is IBM not investing in the Power platform in any significant way. Although, as you well know, I would love it if IBM pumped even a fraction of this bag of dough into IBM i ISV development. At least IBM i is treated like a peer to AIX and Linux and is not being mothballed like so many other operating systems from the proprietary midrange era.