Power Systems Coming To The SoftLayer Cloud
March 3, 2014 Timothy Prickett Morgan
IBM did not just buy public cloud SoftLayer last year because it needed to acquire a customer base and revenue stream to bolster its efforts to sell cloud-based infrastructure and software services. Big Blue bought SoftLayer to get a unique set of skills and operational experience in running clouds, which is distinct from the system and application outsourcing business in which IBM is already an expert. Perhaps the expert.
SoftLayer is a lean-and-mean operation, and has built up a fleet of over 120,000 servers in 13 datacenters. The machines have minimalist designs and come from motherboard and whitebox server maker Supermicro. IBM is allowing SoftLayer to make its own IT decisions, and the fact that Big Blue is selling off its System x business to Lenovo for $2.3 billion does not necessarily mean it will not switch away from Supermicro machines to IBM/Lenovo machines, no more than any switch was implied when IBM acquired SoftLayer last summer for an estimated $2 billion. What SoftLayer CEO Lance Crosby has told me is that the cloud will make its own decisions based on customer needs. As the company is getting an influx of $1.2 billion in from parent IBM this year to boost its datacenter count to 40 (that includes taking over a dozen IBM datacenters as well as building new ones). By the end of this year, says Crosby, SoftLayer will have several hundred thousand servers in its fleet and will be operating millions of virtual machines.
Some of those shiny new machines will be based on IBM’s Power processors rather than Xeon chips from Intel. This is something that everyone has been expecting, especially since IBM has an installed base of several hundred thousand Power Systems customers, who run a mix of IBM i, AIX, and Linux workloads. But don’t get all excited about being able to rent capacity on demand for your own workloads just yet.
IBM’s rollout plan, explains Doug Balog, general manager for the Power Systems division at IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, is to put various Watson-derived services onto Power iron in the SoftLayer cloud as its first move. This will happen during the second quarter of this year.
The Watson question-answer system, as you well know, was tuned up to run on a cluster of Power7-based Power 750 machines with a total of 2,880 cores, and today after a lot of tuning, IBM can run the same Watson workload on a three-node Power 750+ server with Power7+ chips. IBM is going to need to run Watson as efficiently as possible because Watson Discovery Advisor and Watson Engagement Advisor, two services that will run on the SoftLayer cloud are designed to generate revenue and profits, not to be some kind of publicity stunt. The high memory and I/O bandwidth and large caches of the Power7+ chip are better suited to this work than is an X86 chip, contends IBM, although there is no part of the Watson software stack that can be easily ported to a Xeon or Opteron machine. Different parts of the Watson software portfolio, Balog explains, will drive a different set of hardware requirements, as is the case with any kind of complex systems and application software.
“Obviously, when we launch our Power8 systems, we will roll these under the Watson services, too,” says Balog. As for where machines will be deployed, and what kinds, IBM is not precisely sure. And for good reason. “This is the cloud, and this is all about rapid deployment and experimentation,” Balog continues. “We will start with those Watson services and we will have choices for 40 data centers around the world. Following Watson, we will continue to look at areas and other data services. Balog sees IBM moving DB2 BLU, Cognos, and other services into the SoftLayer cloud, but says that “clients will tell us what they want” and admits there is not a plan that is set in stone. These data services will be abstracted as APIs to the SoftLayer cloud, and importantly for the Power Systems division, they will run better on Power in the cloud compared to other alternative iron–as they do on premise at customer sites today. “We are looking forward to experimenting and exploring how Power can be used in the SoftLayer cloud with our clients,” he says.
IBM will offer bare-metal slices of Power Systems machines starting in the second half of this year. IBM is still offering Power Systems infrastructure services on the SmartCloud Enterprise+ cloud, of course, if you can’t wait. And there are myriad suppliers of cloudy infrastructure from third parties that are repositioning from regular hosting or system reselling to become cloud vendors.
IBM is not making any public commitments with regard to operating systems or hypervisors on that future Power-based infrastructure cloud, but it is not restricting anything either. “We have to see what the use cases are,” says Balog. That should mean that IBM i, AIX, and Linux will be available on IBM’s own PowerVM hypervisor. When the KVM hypervisor, which is being ported to Power and which hooks neatly into the OpenStack cloud controller, is available, that should also be an option. IBM has not said if AIX and IBM i will run atop the Power version of KVM, but Linux certainly will.
Balog said that Big Blue is similarly open to the idea of having software companies come in and use the SoftLayer cloud to in turn offer their wares under a SaaS model.
“We are moving fast here,” says Balog, “and part of that means that we haven’t got all of the plans pinned down. So we are doing things, we are experimenting and learning.”
It would not be at all surprising to see IBM build a large Power-based cloud and white-label it, allowing resellers to sell it as their own. If not that, then resellers could at least get a cut of the action selling SoftLayer capacity to customers. Those companies who have carved out a niche selling are probably not looking for such competition, but they surely can’t be surprised by it.
In a related set of announcements, Big Blue also announced that it has acquired Cloudant, a NoSQL database vendor that has merged the CouchDB data store with the Apache Lucene search engine. Cloudant is backed by the venture capital arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency, called In-Q-Tel, and currently hosts most of its customers on top of SoftLayer.
IBM also says that its Platform LSF grid scheduler for supercomputing workloads and it Platform Symphony messaging system for Java workloads (including Hadoop big data munching) is now available on the SoftLayer cloud’s X86 iron. LSF is one of the dominant job schedulers in the HPC market, and Symphony is popular among large financial institutions that build trading and risk management systems in Java.
IBM has also put a version of the Cloud Foundry platform cloud framework, formerly controlled by VMware and now being rolled out into an open foundation like OpenStack has been, out on the SoftLayer cloud. It is called BlueMix, and if history is any guide, this software will very likely be commercialized under the WebSphere brand. The original WebSphere dates from the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 and is a gussied-up version of the Apache Web server with some application serving extensions. This strategy worked before, and it can work again with Cloud Foundry. IBM was just waiting for VMware to let go of it, presumably.
Precisely how BlueMix might be used in IBM i shops remains to be seen, but I will give it a think through and if you have any insight, don’t be shy. Share.