Archive for May, 2009

IBM Big Box quandary

In another follow-up from EMC World, the last session I went to was “EMC System z, z/OS, z/Linux and z/VM”. I thought it might be useful to hear what people were doing in the mainframe space, although largely unrelated to my current job. It was almost 10-years to the day that I was at IBM, were writing the z/Linux strategy, hearing about early successes etc. and strangely, current EMC CTO Jeff Nick and I were engaged in vigourous debate about implementation details of z/Linux the night before we went and told SAP about IBM’s plans.

The EMC World session demonstrated, that as much as things change, the they stay the same. It also reminded me, how borked the IT industry is, that we mostly force customers to choose by pricing rather than function. 10-12 years ago z/Linux on the mainframe was all about giving customers new function, a new way to exploit the technology that they’d already invested in. It was of course also to further establish the mainframes role as a server consolidation platform through virtualization and high levels of utilization.(1)

What I heard were two conflicting and confusing stories, at least they should be for IBM. The first was a customer who was moving all his Oracle workloads from a large IBM Power Systems server to z/Linux on the mainframe. Why? Becuase the licensing on the IBM Power server was too expensive. Using z/Linux, and the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) allows organizations to do a cost avoidance exercise. Processor capacity on the IFL doesn’t count towards the total installed, general processor capacity and hence doesn’t bump up the overall software licensing costs for all the other users. It’s a complex discussion and that wasn’t the purpose of this post, so I’ll leave it at that.

This might be considered a win for IBM, but actually it was a loss. It’s also a loss for the customer. IBM lost because the processing was being moved from it’s growth platform, IBM Power Systems, to the legacy System z. It’s good for z since it consolidates it’s hold in that organization, or probably does. Once the customer has done the migration and conversion, it will be interesting to see how they feel the performance compares. IBM often refers to IFL and it’s close relatives the ziip and zaap as speciality engines. Giving the impression that they perform faster than the normal System z processors. It’s largely an urban myth though, since these “specialty” engines really only deliver the same performance, they are just measured, monitored and priced differently.

The customer lost becuase they’ve spent time and effort to move from one architecture to another, really only to avoid software and server pricing issues. While the System z folks will argue the benefits of their platform, and I’m not about to “dis” them, actually the IBM Power server can pretty mouch deliver a good enough implementation as to make the difference, largely irrelavant.

The second confliction I heard about was from EMC themselves. The second main topic of the session was a discussion about moving some of the EMC Symmetrix products off the mainframe, as customers have reported that they are using too much mainframe capacity to run. The guys from EMC were thinking of moving the function of the products to commodity x86 processors and then linking those via high speed networking into the mainframe. This would move the function out of band and save mainframe processor cycles, which in turn would avoid an upgrade, which in turn would avoid bumping the software costs up for all users.

I was surprised how quickly I interjected and started talking about WLM SRM Enclaves and moving the EMC apps to run on z/Linux etc. This surely makes much more sense.

I was left with though a definate impression that there are still hard times ahead for IBM in large non-X86 virtualized servers. Not that they are not great pieces of engineering, they are. But getting to grips with software pricing once and for all should really be their prime focus, not a secondary or tertiary one. We were working towards pay per use once before, time to revist me thinks.

(1) Sport the irony of this statement given the preceeding “Nano, Nano” post!

Nano, Nano – Serving you on 15-Watts

The Dell XS11-VX8 Server

The Dell XS11-VX8 Server

This is something I was asked about a few times at EMC World, power and form factors for servers. Here is the latest server from the Dell Data Center Solutions group (DCS). It’s only a little bigger than a disk drive, and you can get 252 servers in a 42U rack. While the form factor is interesting, very interesting, you need to think outside the “box” to get the true value.

It uses the Via Nano CPU, to deliver an incredibly low-power solution of 20-29 Watts/server when fully busy, and 15 Watts/server when the OS is idle. It includes enterprise features like 64-bit operating systems, 1-to-1 virtualization, and remote management via IPMI. What this does is turn the current server paradigm on it’s head. Instead of using more and more power hungry server chips that deliver more performance than you really need, which opens the gate for someone to tell you about server virtualization and consolidation to make the most of the power per watt, or cost of the server. The Dell XS11-VX8 just gives you “enough” performance, at a good price, and an effective price per watt. For those sensative to cross-charging, billing out IT services etc. it has another side effect of simplifying software licensing and allocation.

Over on the Direct2Dell blog community, Todd has written a post with some useful additional detail.

EMC World – standards?

Tucci and Maritz at EMC World 2009

Tucci and Maritz at EMC World 2009

I’ve been attending the annual EMC World conference in Orlando this week. A few early comments, there has been a massive 64,000ft shift to cloud computing in the messaging, but less so at ground level. There have been one or two technical sessions, but none on how to implement a cloud, or to put data in a cloud, or to manage data in a cloud. Maybe next year?

Yesterday in the keynote, Paul Maritz, President and CEO of VMware said that VMware is no longer in the business of individual hypervisors but in stitching together an entire infrastructure. In a single sentence laying out clearly where they are headed, if it wasn’t clear before. In his keynote this morning, Mark Lewis, President, Content Management and Archiving Division, was equally clear about the future of information virtualization, talking very specifically about federation and distributed data, with policy management. He compared that to a consolidated, centralized vision which he clearly said, hadn’t worked. I liked Lewis’s vision for EMC Documentum xCelerated Composition Platform (xCP) as a next generation information platform.

However, so far this week, and especially after this afternoons “Managing the Virtualized Data Center” BOF, where I had the first and last questions on standards, which didn’t get a decent discussion, there has been little real mention of standards or openness.

Generally, while vendors like to claim standards compliance and involvement, they don’t like them. Standards tend to slow down implementation historically. This hasn’t been the case with some of the newer technologies, but at least some level of openness is vital to allow fair competition. Competition almost always drives down end user costs.

Standards are of course not required if you can depend on a single vendor to implement everything you need, as you need it. However, as we’ve seen time and time again, that just doesn’t work, something gets left out, doesn’t get done, or gets a low priority from the implementing vendor, but it’s a high priority for you – stalemate.

I’ll give you an example: You are getting recoverable errors on a disk drive. Maybe it’s directly attached, maybe it’s part of a SAN or NAS. If you need to run multiple vendors server and/or storage/virtualization, who is going to standardize the error reporting, logging, alerting etc. ?

The vendors will give you one of a few canned answers. 1. It’s the hardware vendors job(ie. they pass the buck) 2. They’ll build agents that can monitor this for the most popular storage systems (ie. you are dependent on them, and they’ll do it for their own storage/disks first) 3. They’ll build a common interface through which they can consume the events(ie. you are dependent on the virtualization vendor AND the hardware vendor to cooperate) or 4. They are about managing across the infrastructure for servers, storage and network(ie. they are dodging the question).

There are literally hundreds of examples like this if you need anything except a dedicated, single vendor stack including hardware+virtualization. This seems to be where Cisco and Oracle are lining up. I don’t think this is a fruitful direction and can’t really see this as advantageous to customers or vendors. Notwithstanding cloud, Google, Amazon et al. where you don’t deal with hardware at all, but have a whole separate set of issues, and standards and openness are equally important.

In an early morning session today, Tom Maguire, Senior Director of Technology Architecture, Office of the CTO on EMC’s Service-Oriented Infrastructure Strategy: Providing Services, Policies, and Archictecture models. Tom talked about lose coupling, and defining stateful and REST interfaces that would allow EMC to build products that “snap” together and don’t require a services engagement to integrate them. He talked also talked about moving away from “everyone discovering what they need” to a common, federated fabric.

This is almost as powerful message as that of Lewis or Maritz, but will get little or no coverage. If EMC can deliver/execute on this, and do it in a de jure or de facto published standard way, this will indeed give them a powerful platform that companies like Dell can partner in, and bring innovation and competitive advantge for our customers.


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formaly a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.

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