IBM Combining System i, System p Lines

Big Blue is ushering in the era of IBM Power Systems.

In a move that has been long anticipated, IBM will combine its System p and System i server portfolios into one product offering that the company will unite through a common hardware and microprocessor architecture.

IBM is detailing its new portfolio of Power System servers, operating systems and applications at the Common User Group Conference April 2. The new lineup will include two mid-range servers - the IBM Power 520 and 550 Express - along with the JS12 blade. Other high-end systems are expected within a few weeks.

The new portfolio is anchored around IBM's Power 6 processor, which will form a common hardware architecture for the new systems. While IBM will continue to offer its AIX operating system - the company's version of Unix - and continued support for Linux, the i5/OS operating system will be renamed as the "i" OS.

The idea of combining the two different systems into one offering is a way to simplify IBM's offerings to its customers since System i and p use the same Power Architecture, but offered different sets operating systems to customers, said Mark Shearer, vice president of marketing and offering for IBM Business Systems.

"We are creating a simplified products line," Shearer said. "This is one hardware platform is capable of running any combination of our Unix operating system, called AIX, the i5/OS and Linux. We will be selling the Power Systems to both our Unix and our System i client base and they will be able to mix and match the operating systems based on their requirements, but it will be one set of hardware products and one set of pricing around Power Systems."

IBM has been looking to combine the two system portfolios together for some time. Last year, the company decided to split its System i offerings in half in order to better concentrate on the SMB customers that have relied on these robust servers to run a range of different applications.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said IBM began combining System i and p architectures about the time it began developing the Power 4 processor, and IBM may have been planning to combine the two as far back as the AS/400 - the forerunner of System i.

The main difference between the two, besides the different operating systems, was the System i allowed its users to plug a x86 server using the Microsoft Windows OS into the hardware and manage all the different operating systems through a common management console.

Those features helped build up a dedicated System i following among smaller businesses and the ISVs who developed applications for the system. The trick now is to reassure customers and developers that IBM will continue to support the OS and the application ecosystem.

"The people that use System i and the community that IBM has built around it have really begun to look at it as the mainframe of the midmarket," King said. "You hear a lot about the power and durability of System i, but one of the most remarkable things about is the partner ecosystem that has built up around it. This is a system that has found a home with regional banks and special areas such as hotel and resorts."

Shearer said that IBM would continue to support its System i offerings for "a long time," and no end-of-life date has been set. Shearer said that IBM has begun offering the sixth version of the i5/OS and has begun soliciting feedback for the seventh version.

IBM also sees the new Power Systems line as a way for its customers to consolidate older systems and applications onto newer hardware.

For example, Shearer said about 26 percent of System i users already run a Unix OS, so this would give them the ability to bring all the different applications and operating system onto one common piece of hardware. Big Blue has also developed new virtualization software, called PowerVM, which works with the company's Power processors.

IBM is rethinking its server line at a time when the market for System i servers seems to have slowed down, while System p sales have increased. According to its annual report, System i revenue fell 10 percent during the 2007 fiscal year, while System p revenue increased more than 8 percent thanks to the introduction of the Power 6 processor.

Shearer declined to comment on the company's financial outlook.

Joe Clabby, an analyst with Clabby Analytics, wrote in an April 2 paper that combining the two systems into one product line will help IBM save money with both research and development and manufacturing.

"As it turns out, combining the two systems does indeed save IBM tons of money in design, manufacturing and inventory," Clabby wrote. "But this move was not totally about reducing systems costs - as it turns out, the No. 1 goal for this effort was to make the upgrade completely seamless and ensure binary compatibility [a very time consuming task that took years]."

Clabby said IBM will continue to market the AIX-based system for Unix applications and database servers, while the i systems will still be an alternative for x86 Linux servers.