Archive for the 'Lx86' Category

Whither IBM, Sun and Sparc?

So the twitterati and blog space is alight with discussion that IBM is to buy Sun for $6.25 billion. The only way we’ll know if there is any truth to it is if it goes ahead, these rumors are never denied.

Everyone is of course focussed on the big questions which mostly are around hardware synergies(server, chips, storage) and Java. Since I don’t work at IBM I have no idea whats going on or if there is any truth to this. There some more interesting technical discussions to be had than those generally think they have an informed opinion.

IBM bought Transitive in 2008; Transitive has some innovative emulation software, called QuickTransit. It allows binaries created and compiled on one platform, to be run on another hardware platform without change or recompilation. There were some deficiencies, and you can read more into this in my terse summary blog post at the time of the acquisition announcement. Prior to acquisition QuickTransit supported a number of platforms including SPARC and PowerMac and had been licensed by a number of companies, including IBM.

I assume IBM is in the midst of their classic “blue rinse” process and this explains the almost complete elimination of the Transitive web site(1), and it’s nothing more sinister than they are getting ready to re-launch under the IBM branding umbrella of POwerVM or some such.

Now, one could speculate that by acquiring SUN, IBM would achieve three things that would enhance their PowerVM stratgey and build on their Transitive acquisition. First, they could reduce the platforms supported by QuickTransit and over time, not renegotiate their licensing agreements with 3rd parties. This would give IBM “leverage” in offering binary emulation for the architectures previsouly supported, on say, only the Power and Mainframe processor ranges.

Also, by further enhancing QuickTransit, and driving it into the IBM microcode/firmware layer, thus making it more reliable, providing higher performance by reducing duplicate instruction handling, they could effectively eliminate future SPARC based hardware utilising the UNIX based Power hardware, PowerVM virtualization. This would also have the effect taking this level of emulation mainstream and negating much of the transient(pun intended) nature typically associated with this sort of technology.

Finally, by acquiring SUN, IBM would eliminate any IP barriers that might occur due to the nature of the implementation of the SPARC instruction set.

That’s not to say that there are not any problems to overcome. First, as it currently stands the emulation tends to map calls from one OS into another, rather than operating at a pure architecture level. Pushing some of the emulation down into the firmware/microcode layer wouldn’t help emulation of CALL SOLARIS API with X, Y, even if it would emulate the machine architecture instructions that execute to do this. So, is IBM really committed to becoming a first class SOLARIS provider? I don’t see any proof of this since the earlier announcement. Solaris on Power is pretty non-existentThe alternative is that IBM is to use Transitive technology to map these calls into AIX, which is much more likely.

In economic downturns, big, cash rich companies are kings. Looking back over the last 150 years there are plenty of examples of big buying competitors and emerging from the downturn even more powerful. Ultimately I believe that the proprietary chip business is dead, it’s just a question of how long it takes for it to die and if regulators feel that by allowing mergers and acquisitions in this space is good or bad for the economy and the economic recovery.

So, there’s a thought. As I said, I don’t work at IBM.

(1) It is mildly ammusing to see that one of the few pages left extoles the virtues of the Transitive technology by one Mendel Rosenblum, formerly Chief Scientist and co-founder of VMWare.

What’s up with industry standard servers? – The IBM View

I finally had time to read through the IBM 4Q ’08 results yesterday evening, it is good to see that Power Systems saw a revenue growth for the 10th straight quarter,  and that the virtualization  and high utilization rates are driving sales of both mainframe and Power servers.

I was somewhat surprised though to see the significant decline(32%) in x86 servers sales, System x in IBM nomenclature, put down to the strong demand “virtualizing and consolidating workloads into more efficient platforms such as POWER and mainframe”.

I certainly didn’t see any significant spike in interest in Lx86 in the latter part of my time with IBM and as far as I know, IBM still doesn’t have a reference customer for it many references for it, despite a lot of good technical work going into it. The focus from sales just wasn’t there. So that means customers were porting, rewriting or buying new applications, not something that would usually show up in quarterly sales swings, more as long term trends.

Seems to me the more likely reason behind IBM’s decline in x86 was simply as Bob Moffat[IBM Senior Vice President and Group Executive, Systems & Technology Group] put it in his December ’08 interview with CRN’s ChannelWeb when referring to claims by HP’s Mark Hurd “The stuff that Mr. Hurd said was going away kicked his ass: Z Series [mainframe hardware] outgrew anything that he sells. [IBM] Power [servers] outgrew anything that he sells. So he didn’t gain share despite the fact that we screwed up execution in [x86 Intel-based server] X Series.”

Moffat is quoted as saying IBM screwed up x86 execution multiple times, so one assumes at least Moffat thinks it’s true. And yes, as I said on twitter yesterday was a brutal day in the tech industry, and certainly with the Intel and Microsoft layoffs, the poor AMD results, and the IBM screw-up in sales and Sun starting previously announced layoffs, as the IBM results say industry standard hardware is susceptible to the economic downtown. I’d disagree with the IBM results statement though in that industry standard hardware is “clearly more susceptible”.

My thoughts and best wishes go out to all those who found out yesterday that their jobs were riffed, surplused or rebalanced, many of those, including 10-people I know personally, did not work in the x86 or as IBM would have it, “industry standard” hardware business.

IBM Annouces Plans to acquire Transitive

As is the way with these things, public comment is full of legal trip-wires, none of which I propose to activate. Suffice to say that today IBM announced plans to acquire Transitive, who provide the core technology for PowerVM Lx86.

We’ve also done due dilligence on the patents and copyrights for the Intel SSE Instruction set and will be looking at how we can upgrade the level of Intel support provided in Lx86.

Lx86 on Power update

I had an interesting discussion with an IBM Client IT Architect earlier today; his customer wants to run Windows on his IBM Power Systems Server. It wasn’t a new discussion, I’d had it numerous times over the past 10-years or so, only in the old days the target platform was System z aka the mainframe. Let the record show we even had formal meetings with Microsoft back in the late 90’s about porting their then HAL and WIN32. Lots of reasons why it didn’t work out.

Only these days we think it’s a much more interesting proposition. Given the drive to virtualize x86 servers, to consolidate from a management and energy efficiency perspective, is now is all the rage in with many clients, the story doesn’t have to be sold, you just have to explain how much better at it IBM Power Servers are. Now of course we don’t run Windows, and that’s where this conversation got interesting.

His client wanted to virtualize. They’d got caught up in some of the early gold rush to Linux and had replaced a bunch of Windows print and low access file servers with Linux running on the same hardware, worked well, job done. Roll forward 3-years and now the hardware is creaking at best. The client hadn’t moved any other apps to Linux and was centralizing around larger, virtualized x86 servers to save license costs for Windows.

I’ve no idea what they’ll do next, but my point was, it’s not Windows you need, it’s Linux. And, if you want to centralise around a large virtualized server, it’s not x86 but Power. You can either port the apps to Linux on Power, or if as you say, they don’t want to/can’t port, it’s more than likley they can run the apps with Lx86.

The latest release of PowerVM Lx86 is V1.3, and is available now. We’ve added support for some new instructions and improved the performance in processing other instructions. We provide support for additional Linux operating systems

  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 Service Pack 2 for Power
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 update 7 for Power

and have simplified a number of installation related activities, for example embedding the PowerVM Lx86 installation, with the IBM Installation Toolkit for Linux v3.1. Also

  • Archiving previously installed environment for backup or migration to other systems.
  • Automate installation for non-interactive installation and installation from an archive.
  • SELinux is supported by PowerVM Lx86 when running on RHEL

PowerVM Lx86 is supplied with Provided with PowerVM Express, Standard, and Enterprise Editions.

And so back to the question in hand, why not Windows? Technically there is no real reason. Yes, there are some minor architecture differences. But these can be handled via traps and then fixed in software or firmware. The real issue from my perspective is support. If your vendor/ISV won’t support their software running on Windows on the server, or at a minimum requires you to recreate the problem in a supported environment(and we all know how hard that can be), why would you do it?

This has always been the biggest problem when introducing any new emulated/virtualized environment. It’s not at all clear that this is resolved yet even on x86 virtualized environments. Then there are those pesky license agreements you either sign, or agree to by “clicking”. These normally restrict the environments that you run the software on. Legally, we are also restricted in what we can emulate, patents and copyright laws apply across hardware too. Just Do It – might be a slogan that went a long way for Nike Marketing, but that’s not something I’ve heard a lawyer advise.


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally 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 am a Fellow of the British Computer Society (bsc.org) I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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