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IBM wants to get youngsters hooked on Power

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IBM's Power server evolution will continue through hipness and experimentation.

Many customers out there think of IBM as a stodgy venerable computing powerhouse. The notion that "no one ever got fired for buying IBM" plays well in the corporate data centers that most Power processor-based servers call home. It plays less well, however, in the Web 2.0, SaaSified data centers being built by kids more familiar with the intricacies of Ubuntu than the joys of AIX.

Some members of IBM's executive brass would like to change this situation and thrust Power-based boxes into the hype- and growth-rich portion of the internet build out. All in all, it's not a terrible idea since the Power gear can run Linux natively and even x86 Linux applications through a translator in addition to AIX.

"I think we have another play to make here," Ross Mauri, IBM's general manager for the Power business, told us. "The question is around how we go after Web 2.0 applications and how we reach start-ups."

Evidence of this Power-friendly focus on start-ups can be found in a number of places.

On the research and development front, IBM has the "Kittyhawk" program in place where it's looking to bring today's most popular web applications over to Blue Gene supercomputers, which run on very low power versions of the Power chip. IBM has claimed that "the entire internet" could run on a single system made up of connected Blue Gene machines. While such boxes are expensive up front, IBM thinks that customers could one day save on energy and infrastructure costs by aiming the efficient Blue Gene hardware at web loads.

Nearer term efforts include IBM's "Blue Cloud" project and the PowerNet sales push.

The "Blue Cloud" is rather self-explanatory - a cool-hued mound of fluff. Or rather it's IBM's fledgling approach to utility computing where the company has partnered with a handful of research organizations to ship software as a centralized service. Eventually, IBM should roll out a proper, er, production cloud that will likely offer up WebSphere, DB2 and other applications on a SaaS (software-as-a-service) model that lets customers rent access to hardware and code.

The majority of these utility/cloud type things run on clusters of x86-based servers, and, in fact, IBM's most prominent cloud built with Google relies on 1,600 x86 chips.

IBM's original cloud software, however, was designed on Power-based systems, and now the company wants to make the Power gear central to its ongoing utility projects.

"Power is a key element of our cloud computing strategy," Mauri said.

IBM also has this curious PowerNet thing in place.

The company tells us,

PowerNet is a solutions based selling initiative designed to provide complete end-to-end IT business solutions to customers in small and medium sized organisations. It emphasises the value added from creating a repeatable solution that solves a real business need.

We're not quite sure what that means, but Mauri explained the program as a way for smaller, local sellers to come up with IBM-based hardware, software and services packages that cater to rather specific needs. IBM gives these smaller resellers financial and consulting aid to help them crack fresh markets. In this particular case, IBM is thinking that the PowerNet set might flog Power servers at start-ups.

"You see a company like Sun that has been very in tune with this crowd," Mauri told us. "With PowerNet, we can target specific applications or towns and go after dot-coms. That way we don't have guys in blue suits showing up."

Moving from hipness to experimentation, IBM is already eyeing future directions for the Power server line. While it won't say much at all about the specific design that the Power7 processor will take, it will discuss possible complementary technology.

IBM, for example, is looking at outfitting future Power7 servers with a host of co-processor accelerators that would include the Cell chip in addition to other hardware.

"Having these hybrid systems is an important thing to look at," Mauri said. "We are looking at how to have different processors handle other types of optimized workloads."

The IBM executive mentioned applications such as transaction processing (OLTP) and Java as two possible areas in need of a boost. In order to energize this type of code, IBM could follow the lead of the x86 set and pick up FPGA accelerators that slot into Power processor sockets.

In addition, IBM is looking at creating management software that would help target bits of code at the right accelerators. It's this software that should prove the most difficult bit to pull off. So, for IBM even to explore it even on a research level, represents a decent commitment. ®

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