IBM Widens Embrace of 64-Bit Linux

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2004-03-01

IBM Widens Embrace of 64-Bit Linux

IBM has been a champion of Linux for several years—extolling the virtues of the open-source operating system running on its xSeries systems, which use industry-standard 32-bit Intel Corp. processors.

But the company lately has been ramping up a major initiative to push Linux on its iSeries and pSeries servers, which use IBMs family of Power processors, as a way to expand its reach, particularly as an entry point for 64-bit computing. A focal point of the strategy, dubbed Linux-on-Power, this year will be IBMs PowerPC 970 processors.

The Linux-on-Power group, which was established in January to promote the initiative, is responsible for its own profits and losses and has engineers dedicated to the task of improving the open-source operating system. The company also was a major presence at the LinuxWorld conference in January in New York. Just last week, IBM said it will sell its p670 and p690 systems with Linux operating systems from Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. installed.

Customers see the value in IBMs latest Linux move.

Engineers with Black Hills Corp. have been using IBM iSeries servers running the AS/400 operating system for about 10 years and Intel-based systems running Linux for several years.

So when executives decided last year to install an IP-based video security system at the entrances and exits of the companys building, IT administrators quickly determined that marrying the iSeries servers to Linux made the most sense. The two iSeries 825 servers, running on IBMs 64-bit Power4 chip technology, gave the security system the high availability and flexibility it needed, while Linux running on logical partitions in the boxes provided a scalable, easy-to-use operating system, said Jeremy Frie, networks systems manager of the Rapid City, S.D., company.

"What we required we got by using the iSeries, which is high hardware availability," said Frie, who has been running the new security system for about six months. "With Linux we can add resources on the fly. ... Weve been an AS/400 iSeries shop and a strong Linux user for quite some time, so [bringing the technologies together] wasnt a real scary situation for anyone."

Stories like that bring a smile to the faces of IBM executives working on the Linux-on-Power initiative and who see a real benefit to running PowerPCs even in the face of increased interest in 64-bit alternatives.

IBM last year rolled out the eServer 325, which is based on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s 64-bit Opteron and is targeted at scientific and technical computing users and IT shops with mixed 32- and 64-bit computing environments. But IBM officials are skeptical about the demand for systems using Intels 64-bit Itanium chip and AMDs Opteron and see an opportunity to expand the footprint of Power-based systems. Since the launch of the 325, IBM has not introduced any new Opteron-based systems.

Next page: Sun, HP also find value in Linux.

IBMs Not Alone

Still, IBM isnt alone. Other vendors are using the increasingly popular Linux as a way of expanding their low-end offerings. Sun Microsystems Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., is using AMDs Opteron to create low-end systems that can run both Linux and Solaris x86, a move applauded by many Sun customers.

And the last few weeks have seen a rapid change in the 64-bit landscape. Hewlett-Packard Co. last week said it will soon begin shipping the ProLiant DL145, a thin server equipped with two Opteron chips.

Read "HP Adds to 64-Bit Computing Options."

The previous week, Intel announced that next quarter it will begin releasing Xeon chips with 64-bit extensions, which will appear in servers from all the top systems makers.

IBM gave customers a glimpse of what they can expect in the future when, earlier this year, it began shipping the BladeCenter JS20, a two-way system that runs the 64-bit, 1.6GHz PowerPC 970 chips. In the middle of the year, IBM will begin rolling out one-, two- and four-way systems running on the PowerPC, according to William Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive of IBMs newly formed Systems and Technology Group—a combination of the companys server and chip units.

"Linux gives us the opportunity to get more work onto our platforms," Zeitler said during a recent interview with eWEEK at IBMs Somers, N.Y., offices. "When we looked at BladeCenter, something on the order of 65 to 70 percent of the first 50,000 that were shipped ran Linux, which is considerably different than what Intel servers would have been in general. So our reasoning is ... there are some workloads that run on Linux that would do better on Power than they would on other [chips]."

Click here to read eWEEKs interview with William Zeitler.

IBMs push to use the PowerPC 970 chip as a cornerstone of its low-end initiative comes from the companys realization that the Power architecture has traditionally been built with features that would first show up in high-end servers and later become available in low-end one- and two-way p615 systems. The result has been that IBMs high-end and midrange server businesses are stronger than the low-end space, Zeitler said.

"Some of the things that really are very, very important at the high end [raise the cost of systems]. ... Maybe you dont want [those things] at the low end," Zeitler said. With the PowerPC 970, the strategy was "if you are really going to be broadly successful in high-volume Power, youve got to have a different design and cost point," he said.

Brian Connors, vice president of Linux on Power, said the Power5, the next generation of the Power chip, due in the second half of the year, will also find its way into two- and four-way systems. Eventually, by 2006 or 2007, IBM expects a convergence of the Power and PowerPC lines, Connors said.

Next page: What sets IBM apart.

Vocal Linux Supporter

Zeitler said that IBM has been a vocal supporter of Linux for several years, which it considers a key differentiator for the company from competitors such as Sun, HP and Dell Inc.

"We have been early proponents of this and consistent proponents of this," Zeitler said. "Sun, while they now claim support for Linux, for a long time were trying to protect the Solaris franchise. A lot of [Linuxs] success is substituting against traditional RISC-Unix platforms. If you look at whats really happened underneath market-share shifts over the last few years, [theres] pretty dramatic erosion in the low end of the RISC-Unix space on four-way systems, substituted by Linux on Intel or Linux on virtual partitions."

Connors said the company has offered Linux on its Power platform to customers for a few years, but it wasnt until last year that the company decided to crank up the research, development and marketing around the pairing.

IBM continues adding programmers to its Linux Technology Center. Of the nearly 300, a quarter are focused on improving the operating system through enhancements to such technologies as device drivers and compilers, Connors said.

"Were bringing in and leveraging the technology by bulletproofing and improving the base Linux," Connors said.

At the same time, the company has upgraded its software, such as the WebSphere application server and DB2 database, to support Linux running on Power-based machines. As a result, it is seeing greater interest among ISVs to write software to the platform, Connors said. More than 175 applications can run on Linux on Power.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., said IBMs Linux-on-Power push is not without risks. The company could put a lot of money into it and find it isnt paying off; but IBM executives cant let it distract them either, Haff said.

"Its a little bit of a gamble ... but if IBM can make a play with 64-bit Linux on Power, that would be a big win," said Haff, in Nashua, N.H. "Its a worthwhile gamble because theres certainly more of an upside than a downside."

Zeitler said he doesnt see much of a gamble. The Linux-on-Power initiative will enable IBM to run more workloads on its servers, which can only mean more business for the company, he said.

For customers, the idea of marrying an open-source operating system to a robust 64-bit architecture is attractive. National Semiconductor Corp., which makes analog-based products, in January started to consolidate 15 Unix servers onto two p690s running Linux and IBMs AIX 5L Unix operating system in logical partitions. The systems will run many of National Semiconductors larger back-end applications, including Oracle Corp. databases.

Lorraine Cappellano, manager of Web and Unix technology at National Semiconductor, in Santa Clara, Calif., said the Power architecture, with its logical partitions, gives the company the flexibility it needs to move resources—such as CPU power and memory—dynamically between partitions, based on demand. Consolidating on two systems also frees up data center space.

"If you run Linux on Dell, yeah, thats good, but how many boxes are you going to need?" Cappellano said.

Black Hills Frie agreed. Using the iSeries with Linux for the building security system has given the company ideas about expanding Linux on Power to other areas of the infrastructure."It made sense to us on a hardware consolidation basis," Frie said. "Weve got limited space, so we decided this would be a proof of concept for [future Linux-on-Power projects]."

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