IBM’s Migration Plan To PurePower Systems
July 13, 2015 Timothy Prickett Morgan
More than anything else, IBM is a systems company, and it always has been. We could argue about whether or not Big Blue should have ever exited the application software business, as it started to do in the late 1980s and finished off doing in the early 1990s, but I don’t think there would be much of an argument that IBM has been and should continue to be a supplier of full systems of servers, storage, networking, and systems software like operating systems, middleware, and databases.
Thankfully, even IBM does not seem to be of two minds about this, as is evidenced by its soft launch of the PurePower Systems back in early May and its commitment to creating the next generation of PureApplication systems based on Power8 iron sometime in the second half of this year. We told you as much as we could dig up on the PurePower effort a few weeks ago, and have been doing some more digging to get a sense of how IBM plans to migrate Flex System and PureApplication customers over to the new Power8 clusters. It is a bit surprising that IBM did not keep enough of the Flex System so it could continue selling what are called integrated systems by many even after it closed its deal to sell off the System x division to Lenovo Group, but in the end it may not matter that much. Even among hyperscalers and service providers, rack-based servers still dominate and a converged chassis like the one that IBM created due to competitive pressure from Cisco Systems is probably not as important as selling an integrated stack of hardware that provides all of the same benefits of convergence without the form factor lock in.
The market for these integrated systems, as IDC calls them, is certainly growing faster than the server market at large and that is a very good reason for IBM to create Power-based variants of such pre-configured clusters. As I reported over at The Platform two weeks ago, the market for this type of converged systems–including machines that have systems software add-ons for database or Web application serving as well as those that are just bare metal–has nearly doubled between 2012 and 2014, according to IDC, which reckons that this iron accounted for $9.38 billion in revenues and some 3.6 exabytes of aggregate storage.
The integrated platforms, as IDC calls the machines that have a system software stack on them, are more or less flat at around $800 million a quarter, but the integrated infrastructure machinery (the bare bones setups) has been trending up. Oracle rules the platform part of the business with dominant market share thanks to its Exadata and Exalogic systems, and Cisco and its various partners have dominant market share with the Unified Computing System converged systems that it has been selling since March 2009 and that could soon have a $4 billion annual run rate. IDC’s current projections are for this integrated systems market to grow to around $17 billion by 2018, so there is a lot of room for growth and competition here. IBM wants to get a piece of that action, and the question is how hard it will be willing to fight for it. (I am wondering if the integrated platforms market has peaked already, but to a certain way of thinking, a System z mainframe and an IBM i system are integrated platforms and they are not counted in these numbers. In any event, the slowing in sales could be a temporary thing or it could simply mean that only about a third of the market wants a completely integrated stack.)
The good news for the IBM i base is that Big Blue is committed to delivering variants of the PurePower System iron that support IBM i; right now, only IBM’s own AIX and Red Hat Enterprise Linux are supported on the clusters, which feature switches from Brocade to link server nodes to IBM’s own Storwize V7000 storage arrays and switches from Mellanox Technologies and Lenovo to lash the server nodes together into a system and let them talk to the outside world.
Now, IBM has to do two things. Get the customers who went for Flex System and PureApplication setups to consider moving over to PurePower, and then also get new customers who might be considering Cisco UCS iron or one of the number of alternatives such as Hewlett-Packard‘s Converged Systems or Dell‘s Active Systems to think about using Linux on Power instead. With Power not supporting Microsoft‘s Windows Server operating system, you might be thinking that a large portion of the addressable market for integrated systems cannot be addressed by IBM’s PurePower setups. But remember, out there on the cloud, Linux rules. Customers thinking about new workloads are more likely to start with Linux than Windows. That was not true 10 years ago.
Here is what we have learned about this transition. First of all, IBM is not going to be hurrying customers or making them do a forced migration. From what we have seen of IBM’s plans, IBM will continue to resell the Flex System gear now controlled by Lenovo and the PureFlex integrated infrastructure and PureApplication integrated platforms, for both Power-only and hybrid X86-Power setups. IBM is telling partners and customers that it will sell the Flex System nodes based on Power7+ processors through 2016; there is no plan, as far as we know, to offer Flex System nodes based on current Power8 or future Power8+ processors. IBM will continue to support the Flex System Manager management tools through 2018, but will be shifting away from this tool and its Systems Director tool toward management tools that have OpenStack at their heart. This comes as no surprise. IBM has been adopting open source tools with increasing regularity, wrapping its brands and support around them as it did so successfully with WebSphere middleware. As we explained in the previous story, IBM’s existing PowerVC security software and the Hardware Management Console (HMC) will play a big role in management for these converged systems, too. And while the initial machines support the PowerVM hypervisor, it is reasonable to expect that IBM will eventually offer the PowerKVM variant of the hypervisor to customers who are looking to only run Linux on PurePower iron. There is no reason why a portion of a cluster could not run PowerVM to support AIX and IBM i and the remainder could run PowerKVM to support Linux in a fashion that is more consistent with the OpenStack-KVM combination that prevails on some Linux-based clouds.
IBM is apparently working on some sort of “transition offering” to ease the pain of moving from Flex System iron and management software to the PurePower setups; the exact nature of this is unknown to us at this time. We do know that IBM will be providing special “migration pricing,” whatever that means, as well as financing through its Global Services unit to help cushion the blow. And as you might expect, IBM is also offering a set of services to help customers do the migration from PureFlex to PurePower iron, including design and planning workshops for the migrations as well as actually doing them if the customer needs such handholding.
Obviously, migrating Power-based Flex nodes over to PurePower node will be a relative snap; the movement of X86-Linux workloads to Power-Linux is now much easier with Power8 (thanks to it having little endian byte ordering that is consistent with the X86 architecture unlike the big endian byte ordering that prior Power chips had), but as we pointed out above, the Windows-X86 workloads will be kind of left in a lurch. IBM will obviously try to do Windows-to-Linux conversions where possible, but there will no doubt be some workloads that can’t make the leap. Exactly what Big Blue’s plan here is remains entirely unclear.
As we have already pointed out, there are very few IBM i customers who will need a cluster of IBM i systems, but there is one group that will be looking for affordable, integrated, scalable clusters: service providers building IBM i clouds. We have no idea what the pricing is for the PurePower System, but if it is consistent with base Linux-only Power8 scale-out systems like the Power S812L and Power S822L, then the idea is to provide roughly 20 percent more performance on a wide variety of workloads compared to an Intel Xeon platform at roughly the same price, including a Linux operating system. With the new per-core, monthly pricing on IBM i that was announced a few weeks ago, if IBM prices the PurePower System hardware the same for IBM i as it does for Linux–as we most certainly think it should–it could get considerably cheaper to build IBM i clouds.
As I have said before, I think it would be far easier to move 100,000 customers to a vast IBM i cloud with lots of services than to get 100,000 customers to upgrade their current systems to Power8 iron. What we care about most is that customers get current and stay current and innovate on modern iron. And hopefully, someone with deep pockets is working with IBM right now to build a globally scalable IBM i cloud. Heck, it may even turn out to be IBM SoftLayer.