Big Blue: Still Pushing the Envelope

IBM virtual tools range from desktops to servers -- with a mainframe twist on the side.

In the mid-1960s, IBM computer scientists confronted a tough problem. Mainframes had plenty of power for the time, but the applications were as monolithic as the hardware. IBM desperately wanted to do more with a single box, making them more efficient and attractive to customers.

The answer? The IBM System/360 Model 67 mainframe, a machine that ran applications in virtual machines (VMs) and, in fact, virtualized all the hardware interfaces as well. That machine, and the first VM hypervisor, came out in 1968.

The Model 67 may have gone the way of the dodo, but virtualization is still very much in IBM's crosshairs. Today IBM has a dizzying array of virtual tools, including management tools, virtual I/O products, hypervisors for all its major server lines, and storage virtualization wares.

For IBM, virtualization means more than simplifying the data center; it's also part of the company's "green computing" mission and its overall data center rationalization strategy. "Virtualization for IBM is the cornerstone of our strategy -- it is a centerpiece for what we do and it is not just a systems thought. It is an important part of our strategy across our software and services businesses as well," says Becky Austin, director of IBM's virtualization strategy.

Global Services
When it comes to virtualization, IBM isn't just about pushing boxes and software. IBM, especially through its Global Services, works with large companies to devise overall strategies to migrate legacy server infrastructures to IBM offerings. The idea is to not just replace older servers with faster, newer ones, but to take a holistic view of what IT wants to achieve.

When that's done, the next step is to build an architecture that, largely through virtualization, reduces data center square footage, saves money on power and cooling, increases availability and improves flexibility. "We are starting to move beyond just the problem you need to solve this quarter and how much hardware capacity we can sell you. [We are asking,] 'Where do you want to take your business in the next three- to five-year period and what will it take for you to get there?' What comes into play here is more of a services and consulting engagement," explains Austin.

Once it analyzes the needs, IBM can steer IT toward the server line that makes most sense, including:

  • System x. These are x86-based rackmount servers.
  • BladeCenter servers. These are also based on the x86 architecture.
  • System p. These are high-end, Power-based servers that run Unix and Linux.
  • System i. This Power-based line uses PowerVM. System i are mid-range servers that replace the AS/400 and the older System/36 and System/38. System i also supports VMware.
  • System z. What we've known for years as mainframes, which may now be the ultimate VMs

Different Strokes
IBM has different approaches, depending on the server line. "What sets us apart is the breadth and depth of the capabilities. There's a tendency to associate [virtualization] primarily with x86-based servers and Windows and VMware, which are important to IBM but only a small piece of the picture; a small slice of the market," says Austin. "We have such a range of server virtualization technologies because we have a broad range of customer requirements. [For example,] at the enterprise level, when you have users with very large-scale, complex problems and they're looking for centralized administration and extraordinary levels of scalability, reliability and security, they go for the mainframe."

For industry-standard servers-the System x and BladeCenter-IBM largely touts third-party hypervisors from VMware Inc., Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc. (XenServer). These two lines also support hardware-assist virtualization from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

"If you look at our x86 or modular platforms, our tendency is to support industry-standard hardware components and software. So we use Intel and AMD chips, memory and controllers and devices and other things. Our software stacks tend to be standard Microsoft or Linux distributions and off-the-shelf, third-party apps that do not require modifications. We add value in terms of systems management capabilities and higher degrees of availability and reliability or improved energy efficiency," explains Austin.

For BladeCenter I/O virtualization, IBM teams with Cisco and offers the Cisco VFrame solution that lets servers share networking fabrics.

Wolf on IBM

IBM's track record includes decades of experience and innovation in virtualization. Many of the challenges faced by x86 virtualization today are reminiscent of improvements made to IBM mainframes in decades past. Of course, the difference today is that virtualization has grown immensely on commodity hardware.

IBM's greatest weakness, in my opinion, is not in its technology but in its policies. While the industry is moving away from licensing software based on physical hardware resources, IBM is pushing forward with further ingraining software licensing terms to hardware, as evidenced by their Processor Value Unit (PVU) licensing model. Hardware-centric licensing is fine when virtualization is achieved by hardware partitioning such as with IBM LPars, but is extremely difficult to manage when software (namely a hypervisor) is used to virtualize hardware resources. When underlying physical hardware is abstracted and virtualized, it's very difficult to track licensing compliance when physical hardware isn't visible from within a virtual machine's guest OS.

IBM would be viewed more favorably by prospective clients if they offered a licensing model favorable to x86 virtualization, such as by offering the option to license their software by virtual CPU, virtual machine instance, or by the number of connected users or user seats.

-- Chris Wolf

Meanwhile, the IBM BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager virtualizes Fibre Channel and Ethernet connections. This tool not only turns these adapters into shared devices, but quickens the setup and redeployment of servers, VMs, storage and networks. It does all this by virtualizing hardware addresses, decoupling them from hardware devices and adapters. New addresses can be assigned to old devices, or new devices can inherit the addresses of older ones, making hardware installation that much faster.

For proprietary systems such as System z mainframes and the Power processor-based System p, IBM has homegrown virtualization tools.

"As you move onto our mainframe and Power platforms, our differentiation typically comes through more IBM value- added technologies and capabilities. We still support open standards on those platforms and on AIX," explains Austin. "At the same time, we've used our proprietary hypervisors and our systems management capabilities to set that platform apart-that is common in the Unix spaces-Sun has differentiated their stack in some of the same areas. And as you move into the mainframe, it's even more of an IBM- rich stack as opposed to industry standard components."

Despite these efforts, analyst Judith Hurwitz of Hurwitz and Associates says Big Blue still has work to do.

"I would say that IBM is playing catch up a bit. But it's also an area that they're putting a lot of firepower behind and it's going to emerge as a major strategic approach for them. The company is also going to wrap cloud computing as a technique for virtualization into the mix."

Big Blue's Big Portfolio

IBM Director: This management platform can be equipped with the optional Virtualization Manager for more specific features.

PowerVM: A virtualization hypervisor and platform for the Power-based System p server line.

IBM System Storage SAN Volume Controller: Turns heterogeneous servers into pools.

IBM System z Mainframes: The biggest of which can act as 1,500 separate servers

IBM TotalStorage Productivity Center: A group of storage infrastructure management tools

WebSphere Extended Deployment (XD): This application virtualization tool (based on paravirtualization) supports a variety of application types, including WebSphere apps, as well as WebLogic, BEA, Apache, Oracle, and JBoss. On the OS side, WebSphere XD supports Windows, z/OS, Linux, Solaris, HP-US and AIX

Virtual Fabric Architecture for BladeCenter servers: Provides virtual I/O and storage.

The System p Approach
The Power processor, formerly called the PowerPC, lost a little luster after Apple Inc. switched from it to dual and multi-core Intel chips. IBM, however, is still firmly behind the processor, which not only drives Big Blue's record-breaking supercomputers, but the System p server line as well.

Aimed at high-capacity environments, System p usually runs Unix (AIX) or Linux. Efficiency and performance are key System p selling points, and here virtualization plays a crucial role.

So let's take a look at how IBM virtualizes System p environments. On the hypervisor side, System p supports IBM's own PowerVM (actually a family of virtualization technologies) as well as eServer. Power VM uses paravirtualization, which means the OSes are tweaked to work with the hypervisor.

For System p storage, IBM offers the SAN Volume Controller, which pools heterogeneous storage. System p can also virtualize I/O, letting System p servers and the OSes themselves share storage and network adapters.

On the management side, IBM offers the IBM Virtualization Manager, a tool that handles both virtual and physical servers.

There are a couple of other System p virtualization goodies, including:

  • Micro-Partitioning. This allows IT to set up virtual partitions as small as 1/100th of a single Power CPU, dedicated to specific tasks.
  • Shared Dedicated Capacity. This technology allows a VM that needs more power to be loaned unused processing cycles by the processor

    Big Iron Is Still Big
    IBM is largely considered the inventor of virtualization, which it first applied to mainframes. IBM mainframe architects still play a key role in driving new virtual technologies. The POWER hypervisor was built with the help of IBM computer scientists that brought logical partitioning (LPAR) to mainframes 20 years ago.

    "If you look at our PowerVM capability, technology in PowerVM was adapted from things we've done on the mainframe. The advanced partitioning and ability to move workloads dynamically across virtual machines on the system came from mainframes down to Power," says Austin. "We're looking to push that down into out modular and blade systems."

    IBM's solutions, though, go beyond its own products, with a wealth of technology that works across its server lines as well as some open systems. Much of this centers around management. "If a user has a mixed environment with mainframes and x86-based systems, they need a common management interface and console and a common stack," explains Austin.

    For IBM, that's the IBM Director with Virtualization Extensions and tools from Tivoli. Director aims at hardware management, while Tivoli tools tend to focus more on service levels. "Director does your basic platform management and system hygiene stuff. We have extensions to Director that will do things like monitor the energy consumption on a platform or do virtualization management at a platform level. As you move up into Tivoli you get that enterprise management capability and that contributes to the app's virtualization stack," according to Austin.

    Director Details
    Director, a multiplatform management tool, comes free with BladeCenter, System p, and System x servers. For virtualization gurus, IBM offers Systems Director for Virtualization as an option. This extension works with the Xen open source hypervisor, Microsoft, VMware and IBM's Power VM tools.

    The extensions also:

    • Work with Xen to create high-availability Xen farms
    • Have Virtual Image Management that manages virtual images and the templates that images are based on.
    • Track costs
    • Track virtual and physical host status
    • See the relationships between physical and virtual resources
    • Restart, shut down, start and suspend VMs

    The key is simplifying the management of core virtual environments. "Every platform has rolled its own [management] so you get this proliferation of different user interfaces, commands, different capabilities -- it's all over the place," says Austin. "Administrators end up dealing with a nightmare of skills they have to acquire to manage these things. Anything we can do to simplify that management nightmare they're dealing with -- so presenting a consolidated and simplified console, a unified set of commands and APIs, conforming to industry standards, delivering the alerts, and not just at the platform level but delivering them up to the enterprise console -- all of those things will make it easier for the admin to manage the system diagnose problem, improve utilization on the system, to deliver better service to the end user."

    Talking Tivoli
    On the higher end of the management spectrum, IBM has an array of Tivoli management tools that apply to virtual environments, including existing products and newly formed functionality.

    The main tools include:

    • The Tivoli Change and Configuration Management Database (CCMDB), which collects data on IT assets and their interrelationships, and can do the same for virtual assets
    • The IBM Tivoli Monitoring (ITM) for Virtual Servers monitors VMs and tracks availability, plus it hunts down and fixes problems relevant to both
    • The Tivoli Provisioning Manager (TPM) can provision both physical and virtual servers, handle inventory, distribute software, and orchestrate patch management
    • IBM Tivoli Workload Automation schedules and manages workloads across the virtual server infrastructure
    • IBM Tivoli Usage and Accounting Manager (ITUAM) can track usage costs for VMware and Linux
    IBM Mini-Case Study: Ostgota Brandstodsbolag -- Swedish for Virtual

    Swedish-based insurance consortium Ostgota Brandstodsbolag had 28 separate servers with a variety of brands. While not a lot for a Fortune 500 company, it was still quite a chore for the company to manage, power and keep up to date. Working with IBM, Ostgota Brandstodsbolag swapped out all those servers for a single IBM BladeCenter E chassis that houses four servers, and can expand with more.

    The VMware hypervisor virtualizes the servers, while IBM Tivoli Storage Manager virtual SAN keeps the BladeCenter backed up on an IBM System i 520.

    IBM Tivoli Storage Manager works with VMware Consolidated Backup, and can also run on a virtual VM, backing up VMware and Microsoft Virtual Server on a file level.

    IBM wants its products to embrace as much of the data center as possible, Austin comments. "We have tools that manage both the physical devices and system components, as well as managing the virtual aspects of that. And there's integration that exists between Director and Tivoli so that the basic platform information that gets captured by Director can be fed up into the Tivoli products and console, so that you have this layered approach of Director capturing the platform management and alerts, and Tivoli taking all of that and integrating it at a higher level."

    The ultimate goal is eliminating the barrier between the real and abstract. "The desired state here is being able to manage virtual and physical among the products out there today. There is a long way to go. We are not at Nirvana yet and neither are our competitors. When you get to cross-platform I don't know if anyone has the perfect answer. Our Director tools run on IBM platforms but we don't support third parties. When you get up to Tivoli, they support third party platforms but unless some of those third parties conform to standards, we can't always get access to the alerts and the data that gets generated out of their system," Austin says.

    Virtual Storage
    IBM, a longtime storage veteran, claims to have a strong virtualization story. For instance, its SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualizes SAN storage, assists migration. The multiplatform tool works with storage from Dell, EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Inc., HP, and Sun. IBM claims that more than 3,000 customers have bought more than 10,000 SVC engines.

    On the tape side, virtualization is offered through the IBM Virtualization Engine TS7520, which works across iSCSI or Fibre Channel. There's a similar virtual tape tool for mainframes. "IBM offers its SAN Volume Controller [SVC], which virtualizes storage resources. The SVC is an in-band appliance that consolidates resources from a variety of storage arrays and makes them available to the user as a single pool of storage," says Deni Connor, principal analyst for Austin, Texas-based Storage Strategies Now, a storage-focused research and consulting firm.

    In all, it adds up to a comprehensive strategy for IBM. It's clear that the company, which helped found the virtualization industry, is making sure it doesn't become irrelevant with the next wave of virtualization.

    Fun Fact: Project Big Green
    IBM is using its own System z mainframes to consolidate and save energy. The company has already replaced some 3,900 servers with 30 mainframes running Linux using 80 percent less energy in the process.

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