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IBM this week unveiled its latest generation of industry standard Linux-only servers optimized for its Power architecture along with a new strategy targeting specific x86 applications and workloads.

IBM has been a longtime Linux proponent, supporting industry standard distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise – on its Power Systems line for the last 12 years. This week’s announcement reaffirms Big Blue’s commitment to Linux and broadens its scope with offerings designed to drive more growth for the Power platform in the lucrative x86 arena. IBM will fuel this growth via its mantra, “Tuned to the task,” which emphasizes delivering higher quality and superior economics than rivals.

According to Scott Handy, vice president of IBM’s PowerLinux Strategy and Business Development, “This is an extension to our overall Power strategy to address the Linux x86 space and drive more growth for our Power Systems servers.”

IBM is betting that will change citing data from Framingham, MA-based research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) that indicates worldwide Linux revenues are currently $9 billion annually and are expected to grow to $16 billion by 2015. IBM’s own Linux sales on Power servers grew an impressive 29% during 2011 and IBM wants to “dramatically expand this growth” by up selling its existing customer base and luring first-time buyers away from rivals like HP and Oracle, which sells the former Sun Microsystems Solaris-based SPARC Servers. In the past year, IBM has scored over 1,000 new customer wins from HP and Oracle, Handy said.

IBM’s strategy for attracting new business is to offer premier performance at a cost-competitive price point.

The first server is a compute node in the new IBM PureFlex system, IBM’s new Expert Integrated System announced on April 11th. In the express or standard configurations the Flex Systems p24L is a 2-socket server with 12 or 16 cores and up to 256BM of memory and includes PowerVM virtualization.

The new PowerLinux 7R2 rack server runs multiple, industry standard Linux workloads and is virtualized with IBM’s PowerVM. In a standard configuration it is a two-socket machine outfitted with eight POWER7 cores per socket. The system supports up to 16 cores in 3.55 and 3.3 GHz options with 256 GB maximum memory with 8, 16 and 32 GB DIMMs.

The new solution is also optimized for virtualized environments: PowerVM is an integrated hypervisor that supports up to 10 VMs per core and 160 VMs per server. Organizations can install up to 20 PowerLinux 7R2s in a single 42U rack.

IBM Focuses on Total Cost of Acquisition

Historically, the IBM brand has been synonymous with high performance, high end systems for elite enterprises who are willing to pay a price premium to get the best in class product and technical service and support. While IBM will not cede anything in the performance realm to its competitors, it has adjusted its strategy to offer what it claims is “a 33% lower Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA) for a virtualized infrastructure than VMware and comparable pricing to x86-based Linux offerings from Dell and HP, among others,” Handy said.

IBM will initially focus on three solution segments and grow to six by the end of 2012. They are:

  • Big Data Analytics: The Power7 series servers have four (4) threads per core versus rival Intel’s two (2) threads per core and can optimize workload performance for platform-kernel, tool chains and libraries. IBM research claims PowerLinux is 42% faster with InfoSphere BigInsights, powered by Apache Hadoop, for sorting a terabyte of data, vs. x86 benchmark publishes.
  • Open Source Infrastructure Services – like web, email, social networks faster and improve economics with PowerLinux & PowerVM
  • Industry Application Solutions: The PowerVM Integration Virtualization manager simplifies and eases deployment and automates most routine daily tasks by providing businesses and their IT departments with a single system to address multiple virtual application and database servers.

Each of these segments offers tangible performance and cost benefits to corporations in a wide variety of vertical markets, including IBM’s traditional bailiwicks in government, finance and healthcare.

Distinguishing PowerLinux from PowerAIX

IBM, Handy said, intends to accelerate growth by addressing the needs of two distinct and unique sets of customers: Linux and UNIX/RISC buyers. And this may be the most formidable challenge Big Blue faces in its quest for success. At first glance, it would seem that the company is cannibalizing its own customer base or even diminishing the importance of the PowerAIX offerings. Not so, said Handy. Both platforms serve a purpose and are crucial to IBM, he said.

IBM analyzed the performance needs and buying patterns of both customer bases to ensure that PowerLinux won’t cause confusion in among corporate customers.

Mainstream Linux buyers tend to focus on lower Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA) – in other words an aggressively affordable entry-level price that allows IT departments to convince C-level executives that it won’t break the capital expenditure budget. They also require:

  • Rapid time to value
  • Decentralized procurement
  • Ease of use, deployment and management
  • Scale-out workloads
  • A well-developed ISV and community ecosystem

By contrast, traditional higher end enterprise UNIX/RISC buyers are more focused on Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over the entire product lifecycle and are not as price sensitive. From a technology standpoint the UNIX/AIX/RISC customer is more concerned with large scale consolidation, scalable system pools and enhanced resiliency and security to minimize business risk than their Linux counterparts.

“The users who run RHEL and SUSE Linux Enterprise on IBM Power are much more focused on an affordable TCA. We recognize that we have to take price off the table [as a barrier to selling] to get in the door. And we’re very focused on companies that use virtualization and we can use this to compete more effectively. IBM’s PowerVM for example, lists for 16% below the retail price for VMware’s comparable offering,” Handy claimed.

In order to avoid confusing PowerAIX customers with its new PowerLinux lineup, IBM chose Linux specific workloads and applications to attract partners, resellers and ISVs.

“Big Data Hadoop only runs on x86 systems so by definition, there can be no cannibalization with AIX/UNIX systems,” Handy said. “We have a ton of benchmarks and in general the two operating systems are very close in terms of performance. Because our hypervisor is underneath both UNIX and Linux they are pretty comparable,” he added.

At the same time, Handy emphasized that IBM is not trying to provoke a price war with rivals like Intel, VMware and others but to “compete on hardware and superior client value on Big Data and other higher value solutions like virtualization.

“We’re offering more VMs per server at a list price of 30 percent below competitors. That price differential in this space is enough for organizations that want to move. And there’s no re-training required, which makes it all the more attractive,” Handy said.

To underscore this point, Handy pointed to “preview” sales of PowerLinus systems which generated several new customer wins in five countries and 118 potential opportunities.

Analysis

IBM’s latest PowerLinux servers and strategy are clearly well thought-out from a price, performance and business standpoint. IBM has clearly covered all its bases and done its homework in terms of market research in sizing the current and future market for industry standard Red Hat and SUSE Linux distributions on its Power servers. It has also polled customers on requirements for workloads and TCA pricing. IBM’s announcement has all the elements: brand recognition and respect; demonstrable experience in performance, technical service and support and a new pricing model to up sell current customers and drive new wins, to make the PowerLinux platform a success.

The biggest challenges IBM faces in the near term are:

  • To distinguish and differentiate the PowerLinux solutions from its PowerAIX offerings
  • To challenge VMware’s dominance in the server virtualization market.

IBM is is aggressively addressing the challenges via marketing, high performance and price leadership. IBM will emphasize the differences between the AIX and Linux customers from both a technology and cost standpoint to both existing customers as well as potential new customers. Handy noted that presently, 66% of IBM’s potential PowerLinux opportunities have no IBM Power servers in use at their organizations. Additionally, IBM will not recommend that current PowerAIX customers migrate to PowerLinux, Handy said.

Virtualization is a key part of IBM’s latest PowerLinux initiative. Big Blue will contest VMware on experience, price and performance. IBM actually developed virtualization for its mainframes and cluster servers in the 1970s. It will also use its economies of scale to undercut VMware pricing. According to Handy, the PowerLinux solutions will list for 16% less than VMware pricing and offer customers 30% better TCA. Specifically the IBM PowerVM for PowerLinux retails for $7,840 which includes licenses and a 3 year 9×5 SWMA agreement. By contrast, Handy claimed VMware’s comparable vSphere 5.0 Enterprise lists for $9,374.

PowerVM delivers scale-up efficiency that outperforms VMware’s vSphere 5.0 by up to 131%, running the same workloads across virtualized resources, according to IBM’s own internal benchmark tests. The IBM benchmark results also found that PowerVM performed 120% better than vSphere 5.0 on 16 vcpus (virtual CPUs) and 131% better on 32 vcpus.

ITIC recognizes that all vendors showcase benchmark test results that favor their products. Corporations ultimately must perform their own comparative due diligence under workload conditions that closely replicate their individual infrastructures. Based on the breadth and depth of IBM’s technical expertise with highly efficient, scalable and reliable hardware, IBM’s claims are credible. Additionally, IBM Power servers regularly register the least amount of downtime in ITIC’s Global Server Hardware and Server OS Reliability surveys. The survey data showed that IBM leads all vendors for both server hardware and server OS reliability as well as the fewest number of overall Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 unplanned server outages per year. Some 75% of survey respondents said they experienced less than one of the minor Tier 1 outages on the IBM AIX v7.1. And 78% of IBM AIX on Power Systems customers experience less than one unplanned outage per server, per year. Finally, 61% of IBM Power Systems users experience less than 10 minutes of unplanned server downtime annually or 99.99% and 99.999% availability.

From a competitive standpoint, IBM has scored impressive new customer wins – particularly from among legacy Sun Microsystems customers who are disaffected over the changes Oracle has made to pricing, licensing and support contracts since 2010. IBM will have to work harder though to lure customers away from other server rivals like HP and Dell and VMware, Microsoft, Citrix and other x86 vendors in the virtualization space. All of these competitors have extremely, loyal committed customers who are generally very satisfied with pricing, service and support.

IBM does have a clear cut advantage when it comes to the intelligence that powers its systems. The much heralded Watson is leagues ahead of all comers in intelligent data analytics and is at the heart of IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative. IBM is adapting Watson for all of its servers to perform accelerated, predictive analysis. The fact that IBM is now harnessing the power of Watson and making it available to the masses at an affordable price point augurs well for the mainstream success of its PowerLinux strategy.

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