IBM, Sun Make Ambitious 'Virtual' Announcements

If you tired of near-nonstop talk about virtualization last year, you'll probably want to invest in a good pair of ear plugs this year.

From Microsoft's long-awaited Hyper-V hypervisor -- which some folks are talking up as Redmond's first "serious" challenge to x86 virtualization specialist VMWare Inc. -- to ongoing innovation in a thriving open source virtualization segment, to the RISC/Unix virtualization efforts of OEMs such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., and Sun Microsystems, it's shaping up to be a hugely virtual 2008.

Last week, for example, both IBM and Sun fleshed out their own virtualization visions. Big Blue announced a new strategy to market its POWER6-based systems -- complete with a less restrictive virtualization facility -- to small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB). Sun, no stranger to virtualization, announced new customers and product availability for its ambitious datacenter-in-a-shipping-container offering, the Sun Modular Datacenter (Sun MD) S20, which it once touted as "Project Blackbox" (see

System p Floodgates Open

IBM has supported Linux (along with versions of Linux applications compiled for its POWER architecture) on System p for some time. Until last week, however, Big Blue had ignored (or priced above the reach of many buyers) a golden opportunity: running x86 Linux applications on System p.

Enter PowerVM, the successor to Big Blue's Advanced POWER Virtualization (APV) hardware and software feature set. It's now available in an Express package, which -- along with its Standard and Enterprise Edition brethren -- enables System p servers to run Linux x86 binary applications unmodified and without recompilation. That's in addition to the bread-and-butter AIX- and Linux-on-POWER applications they've already been virtualizing.

As IBM officials tell it, PowerVM Express brings virtualization down from the proverbial mountain and into the hands of SMB buyers.

That Big Blue's revamped virtualization move also lets SMB shops run x86 Linux applications (without recompiling them) on top of their System p hardware is just icing on the cake. "Virtualization has typically been in the domain of large enterprises. Today we aim to simplify the adoption of virtualization technologies, making it available to small and medium-sized businesses," said Scott Handy, vice president of marketing and strategy for IBM Power Systems, in a prepared release.

"The capabilities we deliver when combining IBM's … virtualization software and POWER6 technology in our new offerings … help clients build more efficient businesses by saving time, space, and money."

Nor is IBM's SMB virtualization push a software-only play. Big Blue is putting its System p hardware where it's mouth is: the company announced plans to deliver two new entry-level POWER6-based servers (the System p 520 Express and the System p 550 Express); a new release of its i5/OS operating system for SMBs using the System i platform, complete with new support for the POWER6-based JS22 blade server; and a new x86 Server Consolidation Factory offering designed to help customers migrate from competitive x86 platforms to IBM System p with PowerVM.

Add it all up, says veteran industry watcher Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, and you have a credible prescription for SMB success. To a degree, King points out, Big Blue has already had some success selling POWER into SMBs; its newest initiatives should be even more successful.

"The new System p 520 and 550 follow other SMB-focused System p solutions and will likely find success among the same customers and markets that embraced those earlier products," he points out. In this respect, King continues, the "availability of POWER6-based JS22 blades is potentially a more interesting event, given its availability in the BladeCenter S, a platform designed for the needs of small business and remote office applications."

There's also the debut of i5/OS on BladeCenter: this helps open "an abundance" of SMB-friendly System i solutions and tools to BladeCenter, King notes. "In doing so, the BladeCenter S easily becomes the market's most flexible SMB blade offering, capable of simultaneously supporting three distinct microprocessor architectures, four distinct operating environments, multiple virtualization solutions technologies, and a host of integrated add-ons developed by IBM's partners."

What of Big Blue's PowerVM rebranding? Granted, it's a better catch-phrase than its predecessor had (i.e., Advanced Power Virtualization), but King sees it as an effort to cash in on (and perhaps even stem) some of VMWare's cachet.

"IBM's Power virtualization has owned a solid place in the market for years due to its robust performance and flexibility," he says. "However, IBM's and other UNIX vendors' virtualization offerings have been somewhat overshadowed by the meteoric rise of VMware, a point reflected in the Power-VM offering."

Trumpeting a Black Box

Fifteen months ago, Sun unveiled Project Blackbox -- or Sun MD -- which it billed as an "instant-on" modular data center, comprising all-in-one compute, storage, and network resources, along with high-efficiency power and cooling features. The idea, according to Sun, is that (pending availability) Project Blackbox could be drop-shipped to any locale in the world, providing canned data-center capabilities. Of course, availability was key: Sun at the time positioned Project Blackbox as more of an incubating idea than a tangible reality.

Fast-forward to today and Project Blackbox isn't just a tangible reality: it's a shipping concern -- with no less than four customer references. Sun last week trumpeted new Project Blackbox implementations by Hansen Transmissions, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre (UMCN), as well as the deployment of a second Blackbox unit at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and Mobile TeleSystems OJSC (MTS). The Unix giant also announced the availability of new services intended to support Sun MD deployments, including site preparation, installation, and testing.

Since its introduction last year, Project Blackbox has generated considerable buzz in spite of the fact, says Pund-IT's King, that it wasn't actually the first spin on the data-center-in-a-box concept. King points to Rackable Systems' Concentro -- which that company now markets as "Ice Cube" -- as one of Project Blackbox's "containerized" predecessors.

Nevertheless, industry watchers say, Sun made the idea its own. "Sun's adroit self-positioning at the forefront of 'green' IT and the company's focus on the energy efficiency of its modular design strategy managed to raise a few eyebrows," King points out.

Now that Blackbox is actually shipping, King says, it looks like Sun has delivered on its promise of both data-center-in-a-box processing capabilities and green -- or quasi-green -- IT efficiency.

"Nearly a year later, with four customer wins and Blackbox available for sale, how does Sun's modular data-center approach hold up? Pretty good, overall," he observes, noting that the Modular Datacenter S20's published performance specs (including 18 teraflops of compute performance and support for up to 3 petabytes of storage) are "significant" improvements on its design specs.

Sun's green IT pitch still seems relevant, too: the Unix giant claims that the Sun MD can lower cooling costs by up to 40 percent. "Though … the bumps in performance are largely due to a year's worth of processor, memory, and hard-drive improvements, the continuing evolution of these technologies means that Sun should be able to deliver ever more powerful and capacious future generations of Blackbox without too much heavy lifting," King says.

Blackbox seems to have delivered on its promises of high-performance and eco-friendly efficiency; it also seems to have been pigeon-holed -- for the moment, anyway -- as a Rapid Datacenter Development offering of sorts.

"According to [Sun] … customers purchased Sun MD S20 systems to speed manufacturing processes [Hansen], quickly add compute and storage capacity [UMCN], and rapidly increase computing resources [SLAC]," King concludes. "Speed of deployment appears to be the common operative theme here, not a fundamental embrace of Sun's modular design strategy."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.


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